Friday Sabbatical: On Vulnerability-level Trust, Poetry, Bad behaviors, Napkin-ideas, and Mythbusters

Whatever you’re doing this Friday, wherever you’re going or whatever box you’re checking, I invite you to take a moment, just now, and stop doing it at all.

I’m excited to share with you a few leadership tools/ideas/resources I’ve run across this week.

1. Francis Frei is a professor at Harvard Business School, and was formerly the SVP of Leadership and Strategy at Uber (she was brought in to help with turning around the toxic bro culture). Three of the top-nine bits of advice she had for leaders, according to a ZDNet compilation from a couple talks she did, came down to Trust. The first one was “trust is the most important core value.”

Patrick Lencioni echos this in his work on Five Dysfunctions of a Team and the more recent (and comprehensive) The Advantage, and even takes it a step farther. Beyond simply doing what you said you would do, Lencioni offers a more specific definition of trust, called: “vulnerability-level trust.”

As in, the trust that you can show vulnerability and you will not be judged or ostracized. You can say the dumb idea, you can ask the silly question, and heaven forbid you can say “I need help,” and you trust that your team will have your back.

This is vulnerability-level trust, and it is the foundation on which everything else (culture/strategy/etc) is built most effectively.

Without it, what usually happens is teams get stuck in a mutual contest of looking good to each other. If people don’t trust that they can be vulnerable with each other, that they can show weakness without losing their job or status, then they tend to spin everything they say with two goals in mind:

  1. Make themselves look competent
  2. Help the business.

It’s impossible to look good and get better at the same time, so this obviously leads to suboptimal decisions, but it’s the inevitable result when vulnerability-level trust is absent.

Most exec teams spend more time positioning than they do on improving, and business results suffer. If you want your team to share a space in which improvement is the primary goal over optics, it’s up to you as the leader to go (be vulnerable, uncertain, or weak) first.

2. As a leader, your primary job is to capture the hearts and minds of your employees or teammates, such that they go beyond simply doing their jobs, and willingly give the whole of themselves to your shared mission. Given this, it’s a longtime travesty how far poetry has fallen out of use. Poetry, particularly old stuff that’s stood the test of time, is among humanity’s best tool at capturing hearts and minds.

The late John Lewis was a known poetry fan, as was Nelson Mandela, both of whom it appears had the same favorite poem, which they’d memorized and would recite in moments of crisis.

Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

      I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

      Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

      How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.

“Invictus” — W. E. Henley

I’ve stood up in front of rooms of my people, hoping and trying to find the right words to connect with them around the work that needed to be done. Staring competitive threats, dwindling runway and interpersonal havoc in the face, I would often try to write my own words for the situation which often felt inadequate. Recently, however, I’ve started reciting poetry with groups, and it opens people up in a way that my own words rarely do.

You may think you’re no Lewis or Mandela, but remember that they were just reciting verse as well. They didn’t come up with the words above, the only used them at the appropriate time. Just like you can do.

3. Sometimes in meetings I find myself checking my phone, despite how rude I know that is. I could just stop, admonish myself to be respectful and present, etc. But tics like this, unconscious actions that don’t fit with our conscious goals, are actually gold mines if we look at them with curiosity. We all have certain socially acceptable habits like checking our phone, planning what we will say next, exaggerating data to prove a point and the like, that we use to protect ourselves at the expense of our relationships and our long term happiness/fulfillment. If we keep an eye out for them, we can get a glimpse into how our ego is wired to sabotage our efforts to be the best leader we can be. And by noticing that, we can act differently. The key is to notice when you perform the action in the moment, and then look at what feeling it was responding to.

As an example, in this case I can notice when I check my phone, and then rewind the tape to see what feeling I had that prompted me to do that. I did this recently and found that I checked my phone in response to feeling unproductive in a conversation, like I needed to make more progress on a project I’m working on instead. I dug deeper, and saw that I felt like I wasn’t valuable if I wasn’t able to check boxes faster (always faster), and felt like the person I was talking to was in the way of that. That’s a sucky feeling; no wonder I wanted a distraction. However that feeling wasn’t at all logical, as I was talking with a person about my project and gaining valuable feedback. But illogical as it was, nonetheless it was driving me to act inconsistently with my goals.

This dynamic (acting inconsistently with your goals to avoid feeling unpleasant things) is constant, if you look for it, and is the cause of a great deal of suffering for people. For leaders, it causes both our own suffering and suffering for our employees. Simply notice it, and see it for what it is, and as is the case with all thoughts it simply disappears and you can go back to the moment.

4. Tell me if you’ve seen this before. A team is brainstorming, merrily discussing ideas in rapid fire and the moderator is barely keeping up. Then the CEO speaks up with an idea, and everyone falls into silent assent.

This is one of the most frustrating things as a leader, and for a long time I didn’t know what was going on. Why wouldn’t people engage with me in the same way? I was just trying to throw my idea into the mix as well, I didn’t need it to be an edict. Why did my idea have to carry such weight?

The reality is your ideas carry hella weight as a leader, and it’s important to get used to that. You can fire the recipient of your ideas, so unless you’ve created a very vulnerability-level-trusting culture, people are likely to defer to you when you speak. However, there is something you can do.

There is an inverse relationship between the fidelity of the idea you share and the amount of feedback you’ll get on it.

In other words, if it looks like you’ve put thought into the idea when you share it, people tend to defer. But if it looks like it’s a random, seat-of-the-pants, out-of-the-box flier that you’ve come up with, people feel a greater degree of permission to engage. So if you’re really looking for feedback, think more back-of-the-napkin and less Powerpoint.

5. I’ll leave you with this statistic. Roundabouts are 20% more efficient than traffic-lighted intersections, and 37% safer. See the Mythbusters team prove it below:

If you’re still running your organization like a traffic-light (directing your people), consider upleveling to a roundabout (set cultural tenants and let your team Use Good Judgement). I have it on good authority that your top-line revenue will increase by about 20%.


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If you have feedback, or would like to see something specific next week, please leave me a comment.

Thanks!

Ryan

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