What Nigel Owens highlights about trust and vulnerability

17 August 2020  |  Rich M

If you’re reading this and haven’t listened to rugby referee Nigel Owens on Desert Island Discs, I suggest you do. This blog wants to debunk a myth. A piece of received wisdom we hear in the corridors of Commercial and Investment Banks: that if you talk about your feelings, your mistakes or shortcomings to your team, that your authority and credibility is undermined. Intuitive, but false.

Rugby has some similarities to Banking: it’s highly competitive: you need to project confidence: admitting mistakes to the teammates takes courage: and good leadership is required for success. There, the similarities end.

Nigel Owens bares himself for public scrutiny in this podcast. He talks about the difficulties he has had in his career and the blunders he has made. He isn’t coy about sharing this. Although he does say it has taken some time to summon the pluck to reveal the real Nigel Owens.

Does anyone think worse of Nigel for hearing his struggles? Or lose respect for him because he opened up? I doubt it. Probably the opposite. Counter-intuitively, his candidness is endearing. It doesn’t destroy trust and respect: it builds it. In ‘macho’ environments from Rugby, to the Military, to Banking, received wisdom reads: “showing emotion = showing weakness”. The obvious barrier to showing more of ourselves in highly competitive environments is fear of rejection or ridicule.

To build higher levels of trust and demonstrate authenticity, leaders must show vulnerability. As Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat remarks: “I found that being very open about the things I did not know actually had the opposite effect than I would have thought. It helped me build credibility.” 

Tim Irwin notes something similar in his excellent book “Derailed”. Failures of leadership often emerge from lack of leader authenticity – showing themselves to be fallible and real. Private elevators, cut-off from ordinary folk, not knowing the price of a pint of milk et cetera.

Nigel Owens epitomises social courage. Kirsty Young summarises this wonderfully: “…in a sport marinated in machismo, he has the courage to be openly gay”. High performers in Banking can be allergic to the suggestion of showing vulnerability. I think the lesson from Nigel is that vulnerability adds trust and credibility, it doesn’t subtract it.

blog originally appeared on www.blackislegroup.com