To be invincible… be vulnerable


Didier Marlier

April 29, 2018

From Disruption to Engagement

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These last days had quite some impact on my life. You and your team opened up my eyes, helping to explain why some of my team members are not fulfilling my expectations. I had to realize that I am more part of the problem than I ever expected. Changing myself and my style will be a challenging adventure…

This is the feedback we received on a Leadership Program I directed and it particularly moved us: a great performer (this program isn’t remedial) realizing that he/she will need to question their past winning formula is always an encouraging perspective for their own future.

I am trying to do the same at the moment (although not necessarily been a great performer myself;): after a fascinating period as Team Dynamics Coach for a Swiss first division football team, modestly contributing to take the team from last to fifth, we drifted again since early 2018, to the bottom and were asked to leave 10 days ago, as none of the things we tried seemed to positively impact a team that we had previously managed to lift from the ground. A deep moment of questioning is now ensuing. It is healthy and a matter of intellectual integrity. When going through such a process, I feel no doubts, uncertainty, insecurity, weakness or humiliation. Instead, I am determined, resilient, self-assured, strong and humble.

Recently, I was reading a series of articles about one of the most frightening and formidable, invincible “war machine” in professional sports: New-Zealand national Rugby Team, the famous All Blacks. Their haka (a war dance displayed before going to combat, aiming at celebrating the death of their enemies, is also used before each game, contributing to the All Blacks Legend) is intimidating. Their technique is unequaled and their physical strength makes them look like coming from another planet. The All Blacks are the most respected and feared Rugby side of all times.

But where does the secret of such a rare longevity come from? A series of articles and books, recently published bring a rather fascinating and unexpected story about what makes the All Blacks so special:

  • Mikel Mellick Senior Lecturer in Athlete Mental Health, at Cardiff University claims that “the team is as strong in mental health as they are in physical: a culture of acknowledgement, disclosure and acceptance of vulnerability is actively encouraged from all players.”
  • Gilbert Enoka, mental skills coach to the All Blacks for 17 years is quoted in Mellick as saying: “People tend to think vulnerability and high performance culture don’t mix. And that’s false … Accepting your vulnerability and having comfort in uncertainty is one method of managing stress”.
  • In an excellent interview given by Enoka to Adidas’ Maria Nokkonen, he explains that one of the conditions for success happens when “I share my vulnerability, and everyone else is too, we create an environment that becomes a culture of acceptance!” and such a culture creates a powerful team spirit. Enoka adds: “A d*ckhead (I think they mean dick;) makes everything about them. Often teams put up with it because a player has so much talent. We look for early warning signs and wean the big egos out pretty quickly. Our motto is “If you can’t change the people, change the people.”

So since vulnerability and empathy are the way to go… Why don’t we go then? It seems so easy… Mentioned in the excellent paper from Mikel Mellick, “Clarke Carlisle, Professional Football Association (PFA) chairman, has suggested that in order to cope with ill mental health, sportsmen seek relief through drink, drugs, sex or gambling instead”… And from tabloids headlines in many countries, this doesn’t come as a shock I guess.

Now what about your management team? Could this also be the truth for them? The now widely commented Aristotle Project of Google, claims that “Psychological Safety” is the largest difference between high and low performing teams in business. And, still following that research, what most interested me was to see how a leader could best go about creating that Psychological Safety. Here again, Google’s work gave birth to an interesting finding: Teams where the leaders opened up the most, teams where leaders were not afraid to self-disclose and show vulnerability had the highest rating in Psychological Safety.

I have frequently mentioned the work of the great Brazilians academics, Carmen Migueles and her husband, Marco Tulio Zanini. For them, one of the most costly feature of the Brazilian working culture is what Cultural Management Guru, Geert Hofstede calls “Power Distance”. It is a liability for national cultures as well as for corporate or teams’ cultures as it creates fear, mistrust and encourages people to keep the guard high.

For us, leaders, the several interviews about what make the All Blacks such a formidable and high performance organization can be summarized in three points:

  1. Create a strong sense of Purpose (Legacy is what is been used/The All Blacks carry the legacy of a warrior nation, a heritage and transform it into a Purpose which projects them into the future)
  2. Build a team with people having strong characters and values
  3. Then teach them vulnerability, generosity and teamship

 Enjoy your Leadership Journey!


  1. Pat kennedy

    I wish I’d known all this starting out!

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you dear Pat… The modesty of someone who has been an outstanding and admired CEO in a 30’000+ multinational and for so long, moves me. I guess it is part of showing vulnerability. Thank you very much for reading us. Have a good week-end

  2. Mauricio

    Great article !!…. Like I used to say to my people …Be Humble and never stay in your comfort zone !!… For sure showing your vulnerable side to the others will create much more linkage among the team members.
    Thanks !!

    • Didier Marlier

      Muito obrigado Mauricio, it is always moving to see a “leader in action” having experimented with what we say and confirm that it works. Your experience is very valuable to us and so is your witnessing. Have a great day in Sampa!

  3. Sharmila

    Loved the thought. We never acknowledge that athletes and managers never get a chance to express their vulnerability. They are always expected to be in control.

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you Sharmila, luckily such examples as the All Blacks, suggest that we should start thinking differently. Lencioni (The five dysfunctions of a team), Google and their Aristotle’s Project, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his Flow theory, or Marcial Losada indicate more or less explicity the same.

      Thank you for having read and taken the time to comment! Have an excellent week


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