A few years ago I was on a business trip to Ireland and, as is my regular habit, I got up very early one morning to go for a run. As I jogged out of Dublin’s built-up area, I came across a dark, windswept and frankly creepy Irish boys school. It was about 4 o’clock in the morning and in the cold and dark my mind wandered to think about what life had been like for the students there in days gone past.

I imagined harshly authoritarian teachers, wearing academic garb and dispensing corporal punishment at will to terrified young men. I imagined the gleam in those same teachers’ eyes when said young men let their terror show. I imagined a situation where, over time, young men (and women, for that matter) were inculcated into a way of being that held any display of fear, weakness or vulnerability as a poor thing.

I recently reflected on those thoughts after meeting up with a one-time colleague who I hadn’t seen for nearly a decade. This colleague formerly worked at one of New Zealand’s largest corporates and decided to move to something different and shifted to working for a fast-growing startup in an attention-grabbing sector. (OK, I’ll admit, it’s a sector I’m pretty dubious about blockchain, but I won’t hold that against them!)

My friend obviously proved their worth since, after being hired to run said company’s marketing efforts, they have since been promoted to running the entire business. We’ve exchanged a bit of banter over the years, and I’ve espoused my reckons about the company they’re running. As regular readers will know by now, my reckons were forcefully put and, to their credit, my buddy took my strong opinions at face value and didn’t hold them against me!

Anyway, despite opining about the company they now run, I’d not gotten to know this person previously. So when I was in Auckland recently I took the opportunity to catch up with said friend and chew the proverbial fat about what’s happening in the world generally and their world specifically. I got the low down on the career path my friend has taken, and the challenges and new learnings that general management (as opposed to a functional role) bring. All interesting stuff.

But then my buddy told me that recently they’d opened up to their employees about the mental health challenges they had faced over their career. They explained that they viewed their promotion to head-honcho as a chance to open a new and difficult conversation: one about the everyday occurrence of depression and the fact that most people feel inadequate and under-qualified. As my friend said to me when I mentioned that I was writing this article:

After almost 40 years of living with depression and hiding it from colleagues because I felt like it would make me look incapable or damaged I started talking about it with my team. They’re young, and some of them will be battling their own issues that they hide away. Sharing my story has meant that they understand a little more about my coping mechanisms (positivity and achieving goals are vital for my mental health), and more importantly, it provides a safe space where imperfections can be embraced and we don’t need to live up to ideals to be talented and celebrated for what we do.

It struck me just how far we’ve come in the business world. It was only a few short decades ago that I dropped out of school to take on an electrical apprenticeship. At the time I wasn’t really loving life (or at least work) and was pretty down on my life decisions. There was somewhere less than zero chance of being able to articulate those doubts and concerns, however. Those were the days when men had no option but to be men and, while workplaces of the late ’80s weren’t quite Blake’s Dark Satanic Mills, they certainly weren’t open, accepting or adaptable.

Of course, many people would suggest that we’ve gone too far. As I have written about previously, it could be suggested that we’ve created a cottonwool work culture where every individual has to be nurtured and embraced and made to feel special. Which kind of feels like people suggesting that someone is “too emotional.” Since when has nurturing (or emotion, for that matter) been a bad thing? How come we see an expression of vulnerability as a weak thing? Do we really want to be like my imagined Irish schoolmaster, taking glee in the tears shed by frightened and insecure youths?

I’d suggest not and, while I’ll obviously not name my buddy who gave me a lesson in vulnerability, my final shoutout goes to them. Here’s looking at ya, bud!


Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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