Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Strength of Vulnerability

A few years ago there was a motor accident on a highway. I was a part of it. It was more theatrical than my recent interesting accident at a children's party but it involved zero, yes zero injuries. That it was a miracle is probably an understatement. Soon after that incident I was in zone calm. Cool as a cucumber I took care of all matters at hand including attending the customer meeting I had to attend; but post that, when trying to sleep at night, I relived those moments of impact and I was troubled. How bad it could have been, was a realisation that struck me only then. The extent of grace I had received was astounding. So the next day, after an important meeting that had people coming in from out of town and had been scheduled weeks in advance, I took the day off and came home. I needed to get the aftershocks out of my system and that would only happen if I spent time with myself understanding what really was causing the discomfort. I would not be the most effective, efficient or authentic leader if I did not know myself first. And so my biggest learning post that incident was that it is ok to take time to regroup and get clarity.

This time I was injured and I could feel the extent of the damage. I knew this would be a long road to recovery, so this time I regrouped while waiting to go in for my x- ray. I decided to use my limited energy only for the most critical decisions. Priority one was the upcoming board meeting. I had an email from the team with some updates and some points needing discussion. So that was my first call. Having sorted that, next was to inform my boss. I did that. Then came peers and that box was ticked too. By then my phone battery and my stamina, both were in the red and so I sunk into the wheelchair, closed my eyes and tried to regroup myself again. The call to the audit partner would need to wait.

As reality of an impending surgery started to sink in, thoughts started to smoke my mind. I was not reliving the moment, no I had learnt my lesson in the futility of that attempt; it was the ongoing and future hows, what and when that were burning a small flame. All the family around me were either tired or worried and some even both, though no one showed it. I did not think it wise to have them inhale the smoke being generated from the flame.

I was weary of being wheeled in to a room filled with sharp instruments, drugged into oblivion, cut open and fixed with multiple metal pieces that would become a part of me. I was asked by the anesthesist if I had any objection to being intubated. I wanted to retort asking if I had an option, but kept quiet. With the little energy I had, I read the consent form I was asked to sign and understood that in short I was giving up the right on my own life for those few hours. So be it. I signed, but the smoke got thicker. And that's when I decided to ask for help. I took my phone and messaged a friend who I consider as a more honest person than me, with faith stronger than mine. All I could manage to type was "Injured. Need prayers." Despite the short message, somehow trusting that one person and asking for help made me feel better. I was now ready to sit out the night.

Why did I trust him? There are reasons that will digress from this post and so are currently immaterial; but reaching out and asking for help gave me the strength to clear the smoke so that my visibility at least was no longer clouded. I was now in control while the silence had only bred anxiety.

In the operation theatre I was clear that I was not lying down until sedated. The pain, in that movement, was far too great in the upper left extremity of my body. I knew my limits and was not going to be pushed beyond them. Of course I was vulnerable and one of the doctors on the team tried to push me into a lying down position before I could be sedated. So I screamed. That was my only defence mechanism. To my relief that is when the surgeon rushed in. I was sedated in a sitting position and then I only have the repair work to gauge what happened. But I made my point that Sunday morning - yes I was vulnerable, I was at their mercy and I was in pain; but I would not let anyone disrespect my threshold of tolerance, exploit my dependence and misuse my trust.

The acceptance of vulnerability and reaching out for help gave me comfort and clarity at a time when I had to lead the most important person in my life -  me myself. More than outside support, even from those who love you more dearly than their own lives, it is your own advocacy that helps you row in troubled waters. Your own faith, conviction and confidence are most essential in successfully navigating a storm. And in this if you to turn to a trusted comrade and say help me beef up my reserves so that I may succeed, it only seems sensible and rational to me.

Some of the most successful leaders have left legacies because they acknowledged their vulnerabilities. An acknowledgement of feelings, doubts and fears allows a leader to connect more transparently with her team. It lends authenticity to interactions which builds on trust. But it takes strength of character and a shedding of ego to accept that as a leader one may not be perfect.

Lady Thatcher resigned because she saw how vulnerable she was and what that was doing to her party. Her voluntary resignation allowed for a more popular candidate to be nominated and the Conservatives ran the government for another seven years. Whether or not it was effective governing is a matter of another discussion, but the leader's realisation of a weakness helped the party and earned her respect if nothing else.

One of the most revered companies, Apple Inc. was founded by Steve Jobs. But it is also common knowledge that he was unceremoniously sacked from his own firm by his own board because he was unable to see how his decisions were taking the iconic enterprise down. The man post his dismissal conceded he was wrong and began to relook at his work. He acquired and grew Pixar; and when Apple needed him back, he joined the company again but only as an advisor and then interim CEO. This time his ego was not on the high pedestal it was in the first stint. As his cancer was diagnosed, he started to hand more power to his trusted team member Tim Cook. The tremendous success Apple enjoys has been seen only after Steve Jobs' death.

Closer to home, the man who wrote history, Mahatama Gandhi or Bapu as the nation calls him was known to have accepted his limitations and weaknesses. In fact he even stated that the biggest battle was fighting his own demons, fears and insecurities. He stuck to his core beliefs and values and did not fail to apologize when wrong. It was this honesty and conviction that led not just a nation but a generation to be inspired by him.

I am writing this today as I am forced to wonder if in the corporate world we have missed the importance of this disposition and considered it solely to be a weakness for far too long. For how long do we expect senior leaders and senior management to always have all the answers, to always be right and to always win? When will it be ok for corporate executives to be human and let their teams know that they are susceptible to the same fears as the team, and that they trust the team enough to help find a way out? Will it ever be ok to make a mistake, apologize and still retain the helm with head held high? Will the world driven by profits and stock markets ever fully appreciate the truth of the statement - "there is nothing so strong as gentleness and nothing so gentle as real strength"? Will vulnerability ever be truly appreciated as a strength on resumes?

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