Christmas break at INSEAD.
On the beach in Senegal, I look back at the first two periods just completed of the MBA programme. Only four months have passed since the programme started. Yet, we have come so far.
The first thought that springs to my mind is… wow. I survived.
On one hand the time has flown by, but on the other hand it feels like a lifetime has passed since I left life as I used to know it.
The experience has been a flurry of emotions. Excitement. Thrill. Joy. Love. Happiness. Courage. Empathy. Sadness. Confusion. Vulnerability. Fear.
When I applied to business school and was speaking to alumni, the message was always about what a great adventure INSEAD was, and truly one of the best experiences of their lives. No one told me about how hard it could be, too.
I wholeheartedly rank INSEAD as one of the most extraordinary experiences I have had so far, but life in business school can also be incredibly tough.
The blessing of being admitted can quickly turn into an obligation, unless you can figure out how find balance, focus, how to respond to stress and the notion of being vulnerable and sometimes out of control. From time to time, this has felt pretty scary.
I have woken up in the middle of the night in cold sweat, dreaming that I would fail exams. I have cried in solitude in a break-out room after a very difficult conversation with my study group. The ability to bounce back from those setbacks has proven to be essential.
Most scary though, is the realisation that the MBA, when it finishes, is not the end. It is just the beginning. The beginning of the story of the rest of my life. When we graduate, diplomas in hand, we will be ready to succeed as future business leaders of the world. A great honour and responsibility. Quite an intimidating one too.
How will I, over the coming months, develop the courage to rise to the challenge, take a leap of faith and stare back at failure as a fighter in the arena when, and its not a matter of if, but when, I fall?
As leaders in organisations, large or small, you are sure to be scrutinized, faced with increasing complexity and under constant pressure to deliver. It is a wonderful but tough world out there, waiting.
What do we need to succeed?
To me, leading successfully today means to be able to motivate, inspire and build trust in an ever-changing and fast-paced world. People respect and follow courageous leaders, who are authentic, who are real.
To be authentic is to have the ability to believe and stand for something, but at the same time to be comfortable to constantly challenge one’s thinking, re-inventing oneself and dealing with change without losing one’s centre.
There is no status quo anymore.
So how can I, with six months to go of my MBA, practice courage and strength that prepares me for leadership?
As contradictory as it might seen, courage is built through vulnerability. Yes, vulnerability. So commonly mistaken as weakness, vulnerability is the ultimate measure of courage.
To be authentic and real is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is about letting us be seen for who we are. It’s about honesty. It’s about openness. It is about putting your hand up in class in order to make a contribution that you strongly believe in, overcoming that feeling of “what if my classmates think I am stupid?”.
It is about having the strength to argue and defend your point of view when in a minority situation, for example in the study group or panel debate. It is about not hesitating to ask for help in order to act. It is about taking that life-long dream of becoming an entrepreneur and turning it into reality. It is about finding empathy to say “I know what it feels like” rather than pity when your friend or colleague is in trouble.
Vulnerability, when seen in ourselves, is often recognised and labelled by our inner critic as a weakness. When others demonstrate vulnerability, though, we tend to view it as courage.
Those instances at INSEAD when I have opened up to classmates, not once have I been disappointed or turned down. Instead, I have been met by incredible warmth, support and courage in return and received the gift of wonderful relationships.
To succeed in business, we need to be able to connect to other people in a meaningful way. Social and emotional intelligence are the most desirable skills when leaders are recruited. To inspire followers, to build strong teams and to develop a solid support network of family and friends, are all about connection. Vulnerability provides that connection.
Life after INSEAD comes with no guarantees. We need to build a safety net of people that we trust, both professionally and personally, and also the ability to believe in ourselves.
By practising vulnerability and letting ourselves be seen, which sometimes can be excruciatingly difficult, and to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of fear, when we are wondering, “Can I really do this? Can I believe in this so passionately? Can I be his fierce about this? Can I love this much?” Instead of giving in to the feeling of “I am probably going to fail, so there is no point in trying”, or “I want to do x, but people have expectations that I should do y instead” we will have the courage and resilience it takes to go after what we want, to act in times of uncertainty, to find strength to overcome fear and to be tough when needed.
And most importantly, to have the courage to lead wholehearted lives deeply connected to other people.
I promise myself to make the most of my months left at INSEAD by daring greatly. To nurture the authentic leader inside in preparation for whatever the future might hold.
Dawna Markova beautifully sums up in her poem what it means to be have courage:
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible; to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance, to live so that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom, and that which came to me as blossom, goes on as fruit.
To everyone reading this post: Let’s go out there and plant some seeds of courage.