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What the first woman to summit Mount Everest can teach us about being vulnerable…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the official newsletter of Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules. Each week, you’ll receive one story from the past, one study from the present, and one strategy for your future.

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Did You Know? Showing weakness can make you powerful!

A story from the past

It’s 1975 and mountaineer Junko Tabei is in the Himalayas. By her side is Japan’s first women-only climbing team, founded six years prior by Tabei. Their goal? To be the first group of women to summit Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.

Then, disaster struck. At 21,000 feet, the rumble of an avalanche woke Tabei. It was mere seconds before the snow and ice engulfed them. Despite avalanches claiming almost 50% of lives on Everest, Tabei and her team survived—but with injuries.

The team faced a decision: give up the ascent or find a way forward. Tabei recalled a previous, different climb, where expedition members refused to speak up when they were unwell, “[only] determined to only show each other [their] strong sides." Learning her lesson of going too fast, too soon, Tabei admitted her struggles. Then, she declared, “First we recover… and we acclimatize—[adapt to the high altitude, low oxygen environment]—until we are ready.”

Fast forward, and Tabei’s decision paid off: Less than two weeks later, she became the first woman ever to summit Mount Everest at 29,000 feet. Fast forward some more and Tabei also became the first woman to climb the Seven Summits. By the age of 76, Tabei had summited the highest peaks in 76 different countries.

So, the next time you find yourself wanting to hide your struggles, especially as a leader, remember Tabei, who learned that climbing higher often requires speaking up.

Junko Tabei. Courtesy of Tabei Family, via Outside

A study of the present

Vulnerability, as it turns out, can benefit both you and your team—even if you’re not scaling Mount Everest. Last fall, researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management released a study showing that managers who admitted a weakness (e.g., a fear of public speaking) were seen as…

(1) More authentic (or, “acting in accordance with their ‘true self’”),

(2) No less warm or less competent, and

(3) More desirable picks for future work projects.

These findings were particularly true when managers volunteered a vulnerability, similar to Tabei. But there’s a twist: Vulnerability works when the information you share is a “personal foible” (a shortcoming)—not a “moral failing” (e.g., lying).

So what? Being a strong leader also means knowing when to not be strong. As organizational psychologist Maryam Kouchaki put it, “Trust people more than you feel comfortable. Becoming a little bit uncomfortable is OK.”

A strategy for your future

How might you tap into the vulnerability “sweet spot”? Think about an uncertainty, obstacle, or self-doubt that you’ve encountered. Then…

(1) If you’re in a leadership role, try sharing: “When I was ______, I ______. I still ______.” (e.g., “When I was an intern, I sent the wrong spreadsheet to my manager. I still triple check my attachments!”)

(2) If you’re not in a leadership role, try sharing: “I appreciate ______ and would love to ______. What would you suggest I do next to ______?” (e.g., “I appreciate seeing your process for overcoming rejection on sales calls and would love to ask better questions. What would you suggest I do next to build this skill?”)

Not a leader and not part of a team? Vulnerability can still help. In fact, “people who are comfortable being vulnerable and willing to admit their flaws are happier, more optimistic, and have higher self-esteem than those who don’t.” And given that 45% of you said that you kept your struggles to yourself, it just might be worth giving it a try—if not for your team, then for yourself!

I know it because I’ve experienced it: Had I not admitted to having doubts about whether anything I was writing for The Unspoken Rules was making sense, I would not have had an influx of people offering to read my early drafts—and would not have ended up with the world’s largest book contributor list.

Share your struggles!