Being vulnerable is a strange thing. Its very context driven. It relates to you being out of your comfort zone, which is obviously very personal. Different people have different triggers.

My personal bête noir is having a general aesthetic. I’ve had to have a few in my time and I just can’t stand being on the trolley, looking up at the lights, hearing the chatter going on around me and knowing that whatever is about to happen, I will have absolutely no control over it and no way of influencing the outcome.

So imagine my delight when I was told in January 2017 that I had a tumour growing on the side of my head and needed to have a fairly serious operation under general anaesthetic. Initial biopsies gave an inconclusive result on malignancy and it was suspected that the tumour was ‘on the change’.

Things started to move pretty quickly after that; MRI, pre-op checks to make sure I was fit enough for surgery, careful discussions about all the things that could go wrong…… they all came and went within weeks. We were in a race to get the tumour out, in case it was turning nasty.

In all of this, I can honestly say I was sanguine about the risk of cancer. I had seen friends with serious cases go through successful chemo and transfusion processes and felt positive about the prospects. I was also comfortable about the potential complications post-surgery, as I was lucky enough to have a consultant who was honest with me, engaging and great to talk to. But there was still the ogre of the general anaesthetic to face.

I decided to take my mind off things by getting stuck into a book that had been recommended to me. It was ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed. It’s a wonderful book with some fabulous lessons for business, explained in startling clarity. Unfortunately for me, the first lines of the first chapter describe how a routine general anaesthetic goes tragically wrong and the patient dies. My ogre had just become a bloody great giant-chris- eating-beast- from-the- abyss.

Cue a series of slightly panicky contingency planning actions to protect my family from what was clearly now my impending doom. I refreshed the business strategy, wrote an updated business plan, briefed all my team on what was to happen if I didn’t wake up; gave instructions on how my family were to be cared for and re-wrote my will.

The day came for my operation and, reassured that I had done everything to allow for the worst case scenario, I went through all of the pre-checks and procedures. Final briefings were done, papers signed, undignified gown and stockings put on and the tumour marked with a large indelible pen to make sure we would get the right side whilst I was asleep…….What?! You mean you might get the wrong side?!!

And so to the anaesthetic room. Here we go. Heart starting to race, wave goodbye to my wife. Place yourself into the hands of the anaesthetist, consultant and all of the staff in the room. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. The thing was….that they were all remarkable people. They knew what they were doing. They knew how to handle idiots like me. They were calm, they were kind, they were patient, they were caring. I trusted them.

I’ll return to the operation and its outcomes in a bit, but it struck me that this situation has so many parallels with what I ask businesses and business leaders to do. I ask them to be vulnerable, to allow themselves to be open to challenge, to put their plans up for critique; often by junior members of their team.

I explain to them that its vital, if we are to find out where the risks are in their strategies and plans, to pressure test them and see where they creak. I explain that nobody can know everything, so lets use the people in the organization as a ‘combined intelligence’ to identify flaws, opportunities, and align internal stakeholders.

I explain that we used to do this in the military, even as senior leaders, trusting the views of the teams that worked for us, creating a ‘safe space’ in which we could allow their critique, but in a controlled manner.

Some people, in spite of these assurances, still struggle to be vulnerable. Many are really open to critique and see the benefits, but many aren’t. We talk about the need for them to trust their teams, but you can still see the nervousness it provokes in them. I now understand this better than I did before. Having to face my own vulnerability helps me understand how difficult it can be.

The outcome for me was a happy one. The results came back and I was given the all clear. Reflecting on this after a series of celebrations, it struck me that the operation I went through and the lessons it taught me might serve to help others:

  • If you want to achieve remarkable outcomes, you have to be vulnerable and trust the people around you to help.
  • Be patient with people when they are feeling vulnerable, build their confidence and help them face their ogres.
  • Live life likes there’s no tomorrow; put the throttles to max and enjoy the ride.

The Leadership PodcastRecently I had a discussion with some business leaders where I drew the parallels between strategising for business and strategising for a tumour for The Leadership Podcast. You can listen in on that conversation here: Embers in the Darkness: Pressure Testing Your Business

I am deeply indebted to the amazing team at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth for their professionalism and humanity, and to my wife for her ceaseless love and devotion throughout a challenging time for us both.