Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, January 21, 2019
When I was younger and actively working my way up along the founder/CEO/startup road, I would frequently attend talks or lectures given by “successful” entrepreneurs who had been there and done that.
What was striking to me was the apparent effortlessness of their achievement. “I had this idea, I built a team, did the MVP (minimum viable product), raised some money in the Valley, grew the company and then sold it for $220 million to blah blah.”
Wow, hey, no brainer, that was simple. But why do you seem to be so arrogant and out of touch with the rest of us dummies? Your story made me feel resentful and envious, and I didn’t like it — or you.
The issue (as always) is leadership. For some insight, I turned to Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who has done deep research in this area. Her findings are revealing and profound — “high achievers can win over their colleagues with a simple approach: by sharing the failures they encountered on the path to success.”
In other words, a healthy dose of humility humanizes even the most self-centered, egomaniacal entrepreneur. Brooks finds that by talking about the hard stuff, the mistakes, the failures, the leader can inspire others, rather then turn them off. We already know that you are rich and famous and smart. What we want to know is can you demonstrate the human touch, the ability to be self-aware and honest — because in the honest story, your audience deeply connects.
It might seem counterintuitive to confess your weaknesses or failures, but Brooks believes that this kind of confessional behavior helps the leader “chip away at the resentment that comes with malicious envy” and has the potential to move people toward rational admiration. In the workplace, this kind of envy can be toxic to the point of wanting to undermine group efforts and encouraging unethical behavior. In other words, do not hide your failures.
Here is the irony. High achievers do not lose much esteem by exposing their failures — they remain held in high regard, and in fact, what we see is that they are actually enhanced by their admissions.
Look, when I go to these industry panels and listen to the big shots on the stage, I am often disappointed that they do not tell the whole truth. They never tell you the real numbers or the unfair advantage, and they do not admit that they got shoved off the board (that happened to me a few weeks ago in a company where I was the first investor). Next time someone puts me on a panel, I will tell my side of that one.
There is, however one fishhook — namely, if you are a “lowly intern” you do not need to confess, because no one holds you in high esteem just yet. The only way this “failure sharing speech” works is that you need to be “at least a moderate success,” according to Brooks.
When the entrepreneur tells only about his successes (grew revenue 1,000 percent and Google and Facebook and Microsoft are investors), this made the audience see only “hubristic pride.” Further, when that kind of story is told, inevitably and without fail, the speaker carefully neglects to mention the role that luck played. It was only talent. Hah!
When the speaker exhibits “authentic pride,” which Brooks equates with sharing some of the real obstacles, then she is perceived with “benign envy” and the audience is inspired to improve their own performance. After all, there is no denying her success — it is a fact. Look, I attended this panel because I wanted to learn something, develop an insight (and also to give or get a few dozen business cards — networking is a profession.) Brooks calls this skill “interpersonal regulation” — how to influence and shape the other person’s emotional reactions during a social interaction.
Finally, as an example of humility, I offer up my favorite venture firm, Bessemer Ventures. Go to their site and you will see a list of deals they passed on — and there are a fair number of unicorns there. They publicly acknowledge that they are not always the smartest guys in the room and that the world is stochastic (a $5 word for unpredictable and random). I love it.
Rule No. 593
Have another piece of humble pie.