As a leader, you must actively, consciously step into the uncomfortable space of being vulnerable and open. It will help you to be ready to learn from the system you are responsible for – something that is more important than ever during times of discontinuous change.
In his latest blog, Mayvin Director James Traeger shares his own personal mantra for practice-based learning through vulnerability.
At our recent Mayvin event, we discussed vulnerability in the context of practice-based learning. I made a point that it isn’t about vulnerability per se. Vulnerability plays a special role in learning in my view. It is about recognising our well-primed defences against disrupting what we think we already know. We hold on to these defences because we humans are conditioned to work to be secure in our worldview. That is why we are so good at bias. We constantly select data to support our view, and ignore data that don’t.
So, in a time of constant turmoil or when we feel under pressure, we resist having that worldview disrupted, and this selection process ramps up. This is an innate response, ancient as humanity. So we have to actively, consciously open ourselves up to having them challenged, in order to go with the flow. This is where vulnerability plays its part. It is uncomfortable. But necessary for learning.
Leaders suffer the double whammy of needing to appear to be on top of things and at the same time being open to be challenged by their teams, in order to allow for collective intelligence to emerge. This is vital because they simply can’t control everything, or even have a complete picture of everything. They have to trust their people. Being accountable but not in control is a very uncomfortable place to be, psychologically speaking. So practising vulnerability plays a key role in staying ready to learn from the system they are responsible for.
Let me offer a current example here of my own. This is to serve the dual purpose (what we sometimes call ‘double duty’); being usefully illustrative whilst showing how we at Mayvin try to walk our talk.
I recently noticed a discomforting habit I have when looking at social media. I noticed this habit recently browsing LinkedIn whilst waiting for a colleague in a café. This is where the vulnerability starts as I have to admit something here that I am not proud of. When looking at the posts of others, I feel conflicting emotions of surprise, interest, fascination but also envy and competition. I sometimes feel like I am losing out in some kind of race.
It is a race I have been running my whole life. I never asked to join it and I have no idea where I am placed in the rankings. I have a feeling it will never end, unless I choose to step off the track. This is, I recognise, something that at some level has been ingrained in me. Yet I know I can change this. It just takes owning up to it and making a conscious effort of rewiring.
To that end, I have of late being trying to apply a bit of a personal mantra, and it goes something like ‘open heart, curious mind’. It sounds a bit like it comes from some ancient guru but actually, it is just a yearning, a kind of slightly desperate, keeping my head above the water type of self talk. It is in the context of what we’ve been thinking about lately at Mayvin, namely practice-based learning, how I hope I can think differently in order to show up more effectively in my practice, in the widest sense; that is my practice of work, of family, of self-making.
So I take a breath, imagine my heart opening and my mind becoming curious and take another look at that linked in feed. The thought comes to me, ‘gosh I do know a lot of people!’ And then, ‘Don’t the people I know know a lot of people,’ and then ‘arent all of these people getting up to a lot of things, with varying degrees of creativity, industry and commitment?’ It strikes me there is something quite beautiful about that.
Years ago, when we first set up Mayvin, we were inspired (in part) by Malcolm Gladwell’s network theory of Mayvins (or Mavens) and Connectors. That Mavens are people who know stuff and that Connectors, people who are well-networked. So when these Mavens and Connectors get together, that’s what make things fly.
It is a great thought, but as I sat there scrolling, it became more than a thought, it became an experience. I felt the connections, almost as if they were a kind of invisible string stretching out across the ether to and through others and across the space between us all. It made me feel much more a part of it all, rather than as if I was in some way losing out. (Those of you adept in FIRO-B might notice my inclusions needs creeping in here. Well spotted!) Suddenly I realised I’d stepped off the track. Instead of being in the midst of a jostling race, I was connected into in a vast glass-like sphere of nodes and light-like strings, like those 3-D maps of airline routes across the world. It was a much better metaphor and I was glad.
So that’s me just doing my own thing of being a bit vulnerable in order to do a bit of learning. It isn’t that radical. Indeed this is a move I’ve tried to make before. It is one I have to keep reminding myself to make. Perhaps that is real learning: not necessarily doing anything particularly new but paying attention to habits that we know are good for us but we tend to let lapse in the rush of things. Maybe that’s the hardest learning of all?