Why vulnerability connects leaders more than spreadsheets
Who among us has not had a problem with our appearance at some point in our life? My schools in Nigeria and Italy were straight out of student of the year (or Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, for anyone growing up in the 90s). Beautiful teenagers roamed around in designer clothes, and dances and balls were the focus of school life. I looked like no one in a Karan Johar movie – 30 pounds overweight, crooked neck, in my mother’s bespoke designs, wearing thick glasses with pink plastic frames and braces adorning my teeth.
A few weeks after we moved from Delhi to Nigeria, our seventh-grade history teacher asked me to read a paragraph from a book aloud to the whole class. I started to read as best I could, but I could see some of the children smiling, and for my life I couldn’t figure out why, since 18th century American history is rarely laughable.
A few days later, I heard some kids talking about me in the hallway and realized what they had found so funny. It wasn’t what I said, but how I said it. My thick Indian accent was apparently hilarious, and it earned me the nickname “Apu”, after the character of The simpsons, that perfect desi stereotype in the West: Bengali, undocumented immigrant, miser of money, convinced vegetarian and well educated but working in a grocery store. I was Apu, and it was in the late 1990s, when it was only normal for an American kid to ask me if being Indian meant going to school on elephants. I hated how I sounded and I hated how I looked.
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It wasn’t always like this. I was raised to be fearless by my parents, who insisted that I take the toughest classes in school and sit on every scary roller coaster just to get rid of the fear. ‘Ghabrana nahi chahiye. Don’t be afraid”, is something I heard a lot from my father. As a child, I was so confident in myself that my mother still jokes that in some of my photos, I look like an officer on an inspection mission. …
Being a teenager changed everything. I wondered why I had an Indian passport and not a British one like my friends, why my father worked for the government instead of running his own business, and why we couldn’t afford to vacation in places where others could do it. My mother taught in the same school as me. She is a tall and beautiful woman. I hated when kids pointed out how ugly I was compared to her. People who say Twitter trolls are tough have nothing against teenagers who want to be mean.
Eventually I lost weight and my braces, but my insecurities continued to sting me, mostly due to my neck issues. On my wedding night – held in an open-air venue in January when Delhi is freezing – I was standing on stage doing the smiling bride thing taking pictures with people at the By chance, when towards the end of At the reception, a family friend came up to me and said that even though I had a problem with my neck, I should try to straighten it. Otherwise, his picture with me would be bad. This is not the only time I have been confronted with such comments. Periodically, women at airport security checkpoints ask why my neck is the way it is. ‘Kya problem hai, childhood ka hai?’ What’s the problem? Have you had it since your childhood?
This stuff happens to you, no matter how strong or successful you are. It hits your self-confidence; it makes you aware of yourself. Until I was around 30, it affected me so much that I hated seeing my photos because I was convinced I was ugly.
We all have these stories – it’s not just women. We all have imperfections that we are embarrassed about. Unfortunately, we are constantly reminded of these so-called shortcomings and long after the voices have passed, the echoes remain in our heads. It can be a physical imperfection, a scar, baldness; it could be our height or our weight. For many, it could be an accent, discomfort speaking a language, or the background they come from. And, for some, it’s a professional failure, heartbreak or an old mistake they made. We all carry the baggage of imperfection – whether we’re newbies at work or CEOs – and that baggage gets heavier over time, even as we get used to carrying it around with a smile. In today’s world, when you’re asked if a hair is out of place, you start to believe that life should be what you see everyone posting on Facebook and Instagram. Sharing your scars and speaking your truth is difficult. After all, ‘Sign in kya kahenge? What will people say?
As mentioned earlier, in 2018 I attended a storytelling training that Captain Raghu organized for Edelweiss leaders. I was part of a powerful group of financial services leaders, strong and successful business leaders, who knew each other through shared leadership encounters, business wins and numbers. But when each of us had to give TED-style talks that Sunday between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., there were no business strategies, budgets, and quarterly plans discussed. There was only the sharing of stories – stories of struggles to escape the drudgery of a small town, stories of the insecurity of not being from a famous B school, stories of family businesses in bankruptcy. There were stories of failure, loss, guilt, fear, and redemption, and as these stories unfolded the atmosphere in the room changed.
The vulnerability connected leaders in a way spreadsheets could never have. The atmosphere of this room gave me the confidence to tell my story, a story that I had never had the courage to tell anyone in its entirety or even to share privately with my parents or Nalin. Once there, I received immense affection from my colleagues, even those I only formally knew before the conference. It gave me the confidence to share the story on a public platform (in the video that became “The Girl with the Broken Neck”). This conversation allowed me to finally let go of my luggage. I admitted to my struggle with my neck and my complex about my appearance, I talked about the rejection and my attempt to jump off a building, and I talked about the insecurity of being a founder of a start-up and lifestyle challenges that I faced even with close friends. There were 500 people in the auditorium that day, but I was talking primarily to myself.
Captain Raghu told me that I never imagined how far the conversation would go, and he was right – although I didn’t believe him at first. I have received thousands of messages since it went live, and I still receive them today, from men and women around the world, from colleagues of my father who are over 80 years old, from friends of my younger brother, old classmates in Nigeria and people I don’t know. Through these posts, I felt connected to hundreds of thousands of people I had never met, and more connected to my peers’ teams, distributors, customers, and CEOs. Have these people contacted me because I am CEO? No. They connected to a girl with a broken neck, a real person with flaws and imperfections, just like them and everyone else.
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This one video showed me how powerful it is to slowly peel away all your layers, reveal your flaws and vulnerabilities, and be your authentic self. It took me more than 30 years to realize this, even though the plots of countless films have taught us the same thing….
I noticed that by admitting my imperfections and vulnerabilities, my conversations with others became more real. I’ve often had interview candidates open up a first conversation for me about the deep challenges they’ve faced in their past organizations or the personal issues they’ve battled. My employees have been sharing brutally honest personal stories because they feel a connection. Even more surprisingly, after the video aired, I received comments and messages about how viewers trust me more as a fund manager, even though I didn’t say a word about it. finance or mutual funds. As businesses and individuals, we can produce tons of marketing messages about the trustworthiness and trustworthiness of our brands, but honest stories can’t travel beyond advertising budgets.
The cover of Limitless: The Power of Unlocking Your True Potential by Radhika Gupta
When I ask people what keeps them from talking about their vulnerabilities, the most common fear they express is being judged or, worse, being taken advantage of. I believe that if 5% of the world will do what they have to do, you will always find majority support….
The biggest benefit of accepting my vulnerabilities has been personal and internal. Confidence, when damaged, makes you insecure even when you are doing your best. … Being able to tell myself and people around me that I’m not perfect has helped me discover my self-confidence. From not being able to speak even when I got the answer right, I can now laugh at a mistake while speaking on stage or even sing in my not-so-great voice during a webinar (if only for Prahlad Kakkar tells me that I have no sense of security and laughs about it!). Much of what life gives us – who our parents are, where we were born, where we grew up, what we look like – are constants. They are fixed, like the value of pi. We have no control over them. Embracing vulnerability has helped me accept and celebrate these constants, rather than running from them or fighting to change them.
Excerpted with permission from Limitless: The Power of Unlocking Your True Potential, by Radhika Gupta, published by Hachette India.