My cousin Rich and I learnt to fly small airplanes together many years ago. I moved overseas but he continued to fly.
One summer, he was flying a plane, spotting cattle for a very large ranch. As he took off in the afternoon, there was not enough lift to get above the trees, and his landing gear hit the top of the trees.
The plane crashed to the ground and caught fire. The other person with him was able to jump out, but my cousin was unable to release his seat belt. His companion ran back and helped to pull my cousin out of the burning plane.
However, by the time Rich got out, 80 per cent of his body had third-degree burns. An ambulance arrived and flew him to a special burns centre in Portland, Oregon, where he spent months in unimaginable pain, having his skin grafted to rebuild his face. As he went through all this, his wife divorced him.
After he was healed and was putting his life back together, he told me: “I would rather face the pain of the fire than the pain of the divorce.”
The reality was that the pain of relationships, of being vulnerable to others and having them turn against you, was worse than having third-degree burns on 80 per cent of his body.
Change and vulnerability
What has Rich’s story to do with talking about change?
Change makes people feel vulnerable. Being vulnerable exposes people to the world and leaves them out of control. It carries with it the potential for embarrassment and your natural response is to protect yourself.
The fight or flight reaction is very strong and highly developed and requires no conscious thought for people to become defensive. This has allowed you to develop into who you are today.
But humanity’s greatest strength is also its weakness. When you feel vulnerable, exposed or threatened in any way, your first and fastest reaction is to protect yourself.
Thus, when there is the greatest opportunity and need for change, you feel threatened and vulnerable and are least able to ask questions and learn.
The reality is that the rate of learning must be equal to or greater than the rate of change or you will get left behind. In other words, your capacity for vulnerability must be equal to the rate of change.
Most of your training and development has taught you to limit your vulnerability and yet it is this aspect of vulnerability that is one of the defining capacities of dealing with change. Through vulnerability, people open the door to creativity and new ways of interacting.
I ask participants in my workshops to tell me what emotions they have when they are in situations where they don’t know what to do. Some of the most common responses are anger, embarrassment, fear, nervousness, shame or frustration.
The situation can be summed up this way:
The struggle with change is that I don’t know what to do. When I don’t know what to do, I feel vulnerable. When I feel vulnerable, I become defensive.
When I become defensive, I stop learning and asking questions. When I stop learning, I do things the way they have always been done to keep safe.
When I do things the way they have always been done, I stop taking risks or trying new things.”
When leaders lose the ability to change and create new things, the team, department or even the organisation pays the price.
My cousin Rich didn’t stop living because of his pain. It would have been easy to hide and not care about anyone anymore. But he made a choice to be vulnerable. He now shares his story by visiting other severely burnt victims in the hospital every month. After listening to his experiences, they have hope that maybe there is a life ahead for them too.
Being an effective leader means choosing vulnerability at times. It means learning that there are other choices besides just being defensive.
When you lead by example, you create a culture of vulnerability, where those around you can also take risks and get feedback in potentially painful areas that will help the team and the organisation keep up with the changes taking place.