In the first 18 months of setting up our business we had a full page article published in the business section of The Age. It was a momentous occasion for us, and our phones were ringing hot and our email inboxes overflowing with good wishes.
The very next day there was a vicious letter in The Age from another consultant, who had taken offense to one statement in the article and used it out of context. Online, another ‘Storytelling expert’ also went ballistic with personal criticism in what felt like a spiteful unwarranted attack that just kept snowballing. It was traumatic and humiliating. At our lowest ebb the phone rang and it was the CEO who we had recently worked with. He had never rung us personally before but he did tell us “first of all well done for standing up for what you believe in”. Then he also said “every time you stick your neck out there will always be someone who will try to kick your head in”. The CEO was not sympathetic, like our friends and family, but had empathy and was also preparing us for what the stakes were when you play in the arena.
It was the most powerful thing anyone could have said to us. It helped us pick up the pieces and move forward, instead of floundering in self doubt. Interestingly we continued to write, publish and grow whereas one of our critics has disappeared (and no we had nothing to do with it!) and the other one has simply earned a vitriolic reputation.
With the passage of time we are able to joke about this, humor is after all sometimes the best coping mechanism.
I was recently given a new frame to think about that experience, in a talk presented by Brené Brown. Brené Brown is a professor and a researcher who’s TED talk in 2010 shot her to international stardom, practically overnight. It was an unexpected and meteoric rise but well deserved and earned.
Brené said that her husband and her therapist had put her in lock down mode and banned her from looking at the comments posted on line about her talk. So what did she do? She immediately went on online and looked at the comments, and people had posted hurtful, spiteful comments like ‘Less research more botox’, ‘Lose 15 pounds and we will be ready to listen to you’. Anonymous comments are the cesspool of the internet. When Brené shared some of these comments, the audience literally gasped. Then Brené said ‘I realized then that when you go into the arena, whatever that is for you, in sport, at work, in life, there is only one guarantee, that you will get your arse kicked’.
She also said when you are picking people up after they had their arse kicked the best thing to say to them is along the lines of ‘That totally sucked, (don’t deny their experience of what is happening to them) but remember…and remind that what they did that was brave or what they stood up for’. That is what the CEO did for us that day in the single phone call, he knew that is what we needed and reached out and pulled us off the floor.
Everyday in organisations, leadership is the largest and most important arena that people play in. But most people don’t often talk about the dark side of leadership and the toll it can take on leaders. The days when leaders stand for something and metaphorically get their head kicked in either by the board, share holders, or peers. Knowing that these are the stakes, might make us risk averse, no one wants to stick their head out, and innovation, opportunity or even simply ‘doing the right thing’ might all sadly wither as a consequence. So if you are a leader or not, prepare yourself for this, as it is the only guarantee in the arena. And every time you see someone getting their arse kicked, reach out and help them back up off the floor. As next time, that could be you.
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