Empathy, Vulnerability, and Unicycles

Mar 01, 2022

In leadership, just as in any other aspect of life, being openly vulnerable is a hard thing to do. It can be for several reasons; we might feel it portrays weakness or lack of authority. Or, because we judge ourselves too harshly, and although we love to see others' openness, we might feel afraid of showcasing our own. 

Still, connecting with our teams from a place of vulnerability is perhaps the most potent type of connection, and there is a shortcut to it: empathy.

Through empathy, we can authentically connect with people, not only by walking in their shoes but also by being concerned about them, about their struggles, their challenges, and their victories. 

In this episode, we delve into the power of vulnerability and how we can create more substantial and long-lasting connections with those around us through empathy. We explore the advantages of effective communication, the transforming effects of understanding someone else's point of view, being genuinely concerned about people's progress and evolution, and how crucial it is to adopt the beginner mindset when teaching something. 

In This Episode, You Will Learn:

  • The power of empathy to help us understand others' struggles and challenges (2:22)
  • The transformational effects of understanding someone else's point of view (5:20)
  • The power of being concerned about people's progress (8:47)
  • Fun time with a unicycle, and the relevance of adopting the beginner mindset to teach empathetically (11:30)
  • When seeking to understand is a priority, everything becomes easier (15:15)


  • Quote: Simon Sinek - "Empathy is about being concerned about the human being and not just about their output."
  • Quote: Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft - "The key to everything is empathy because nothing is more fruitful than walking in the shoes of others."
  • Quote: Stephen Covey - "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
  • Coaching with Clint Consultation Call - Book Here
  • Download my free One-on-One Transformation tool

Let's Connect!


Clint Hoopes: Welcome to the Flavor of Leadership podcast. So excited to have you here today. I’ve got to apologize out of the gate, my throat is just a little bit off today. I, once again, feel perfectly fine – not sick or anything – but my throat is just a little bit off, maybe I've overused it or something. So, I apologize for the voice today, I may be clearing my throat throughout the show and grab a drink every once in a while, so apologize for that. But this week, there has been something on my mind quite a bit recently, and it is vulnerability as a leader – being vulnerable as a leader. Back in episode number 45, we actually did a whole episode on being vulnerable as a leader. And it's been on my mind again, thinking about some of the leaders that I'm coaching right now, as they're working through being a little more vulnerable as a leader, it's brought up some different discussions. And there are some key parts to vulnerability, that really, things we can do to make it a lot more easy to be vulnerable with our people. Because that is tough – it's tough to be there, it puts us in a place where we are vulnerable, just comes right back to that. And that thing that can make it a little bit easier, in my opinion, is empathy;  empathy with those we lead; having empathy. The Oxford Dictionary has a definition of empathy that I want to share – they say, “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” So, having empathy and understanding of the feelings of another person, especially those we lead, does make it easier for us, in the end, to be able to be a little more vulnerable, because we feel like we are understanding the people that we're speaking to, the people we're being vulnerable with, which then, in turn, helps them also be more vulnerable and empathetic with us. 

Now, just like all leadership, it all starts with us first. It always starts with us. So, we can't expect our people to be empathetic with our situation or vulnerable with us if we don't first do the same with them. I have another quote I want to share here by Satya Nadella. So, Satya Nadella – he is the CEO of Microsoft, and he said this: “The key to everything is empathy, because nothing is more fruitful than walking in the shoes of others.” Now, I like this, I really do like this. Notice how he used his words here. He said ‘everything’ – “The key to everything is empathy.” He could have said, the key to business, the key to leadership, the key to so many things, he said is empathy. But he said, “The key to everything is empathy.” Now, when anyone uses absolutes – like ‘everything’ or ‘nothing,’ like he did here – it makes my ears perk up, because I want to say, “Okay, what they believe that strongly that this is the key, this is it.” And so I like to hear where he's coming from on this. The fact that he said ‘everything,’ and not just business or leadership, it's made my mind think, and I've been thinking about it. And the truth is that everything we do in life involves communication of some sort with individuals, nearly everything we do in life is interacting with someone else. So, we have to communicate. And depending on how well we understand those we're communicating with will determine how we view them as a person, and it determines our reaction back to them. So, in essence, the more empathy we have for someone, the better we can communicate with them; and the better we can communicate and understand them, the better everything will go for us and for them. 

Most big issues in life, at work, at home, wherever it is, come from a lack of communication; not seeking to see things from the other person's point of view. It's all about context. Our context shifts everything. As soon as you are in a place where you can see someone in their context or where they're at, it changes how you see things; it changes what you're worried about; it changes what's on your mind; it changes your decisions, based on the lens that you see the world. And the way we see the world is constantly shifting, it's never the same. Because the more we seek to understand other people and the more experiences we have in our own lives, it shifts the way we see the world, very subtly, but it does shift the way we see things. So, the way I see something today is likely not the same way I'm going to see something into the future. And when I'm seeking to understand someone else's point of view, that can be something that can be transformational, to the way I see a certain issue or maybe in lots of parts of life. 

There's another quote here that I love by Simon Sinek. So, Simon Sinek – he is a leadership and business expert, author, speaker, great man. And this is his quote – he says, “Empathy is about being concerned about the human being, and not just about their output.” So, I don't believe that he's telling us to ignore performance when he says it's more about the human being that is the output. I believe that he is trying to help us see people clearly first, understand them first. Because if you don't understand them, you won't understand the output, and you won’t understand how to help them have a better output – whatever that means. He's just saying we need to seek to see the people as people first. I love that he used the word ‘concern’. So, in the Oxford Dictionary definition, it said that empathy was more about the understanding and sharing the feelings of others. And he's saying that empathy is a little bit more about how concerned we are with the actual human being in front of us, in terms of leadership. So, I like the word ‘concern’. Because when you're concerned about something or someone, it changes the way you react to them, the way you communicate with them. 

If you have a genuine concern, a genuine desire to understand someone, you will do everything you can to make sure they succeed. And generally, they will feel that and then they will live up to it. They'll seek to do the same with you. They'll reciprocate that without almost even trying, because it just feels natural – it's a natural communication – because they will feel heard and understood by you, their leader. They'll feel that concern. And then, in the end, the output will improve from there. I truly believe that. I have seen that in my career over and over again; when I've had genuine concern and genuine empathy with someone and then, in turn, been more vulnerable with them, they have reciprocated and done the same for me. And our understanding is greater, our communication is better. So, then I'm able to better communicate the vision as their leader; better communicate what I expect, what the measurement needs to be. All of these different pieces, what a good job looks like for them, what success looks like for them. And they end up doing even better, the output is even better when I seek to do this first.

So, at work, I can think of many times when I've shown up and tried to show someone how to do something. Have you guys done that where you're trying to show somebody something at work, you're trying to teach them something? Now, this could be anything. This could be everything from a principle – like you're teaching somebody about customer service, and you're trying to help them understand to a very specific process. I think I end up getting more frustrated with the process focus stuff, where I'm like, “Okay, now, here's the software program. Here are the instructions, they're pretty darn clear. I'm going to walk you through it and then you can do it.” And you have the instructions, step by step, it seems clear to you. You show them how to do it, and then you say, “Okay, now you go do it.” And they can't, or they fail in the same place each time, and you're just like, “Oh, my goodness! I’m going crazy here.” Especially after you've shown someone multiple times, it's hard to have empathy in those types of situations. Especially if it's been so long since you were a beginner in this thing, whatever this might be, whether it's a piece of software or, as a leader, maybe you're reviewing financial statements, and you go through it and you're just not seeing the patterns. And then somebody else, who's been doing it for years, will come and look at the financial statements, and they will instantly see the areas that need to be improved and seen. You've probably seen that before, where you're sitting there like, “Oh, my goodness! Are they some kind of wizard?” It's like, “No, they just have experience.” They are down the road. They have the knowledge already. And it's very difficult to be in that vantage point, where you have the experience, you're the expert, or even if you're just steps ahead of a beginner that's brand new – it is so hard to remember back when you were first a beginner. 

Right now, you're probably thinking in your mind, of examples of this. So, pay attention to those examples because they'll help you see where, right now, you might not be having empathy with some of your people, in this very case. Remembering that they are brand new, remember back when you were new on that thing, or on something else, because it can be very frustrating.

So, let me explain to you something that was very frustrating for me in the past that I was learning. So, it's been over 20 years ago now that I first learned to ride the unicycle. So, some people unicycles, they're like, “Oh, seriously? Unicycle?” You know, the clowns at the circus, or wherever it might be where you see people riding unicycles. I mean, you start seeing a few more around these days and it's pretty fun. So, I wanted to learn to ride the unicycle, and it was a tonne of fun, I loved it. And it was so stinking hard. It was hard. It was hard to learn. And it took me a little while, but I finally got it. And then I learned some tricks, learned different things. And I've learned unicycle for years on and off. And so, recently, I've actually been able to bring my unicycles back out with my family. And it's so fun. I did a little challenge. We had a little challenge with my older kids. My oldest three are all wanting to learn to ride the unicycle. And so it's super fun. So, I went out there teaching them, and they've been out there just practicing. And there’s a little wall on the side of our house, so they've been holding on to the side of the wall, trying to get their balance on the unicycle. And if you've never tried a unicycle before, it's worth trying. It's pretty fun. It's an experience. If you have balance like you can wheelie on a bike, for instance, that does not necessarily translate over. I mean, being active, and being athletic, and having some balance – that definitely helps. But the feeling is different. You know, I’m just gonna hop on the unicycle. It takes a little bit of practice. It's a different feel. And so it's been fun for my kids. And my wife, it's so funny, because as a mother, often she's in a position where she's teaching her kids things that she knows how to do. Same for me; we're teaching our kids things we know how to do. Even riding a bike, for instance, “Okay, let's help you ride a bike.” “Pedal when this happens, we'll hold the seat, and help get your balance,” until they figure it out. And this has been an experience for my wife, where she's been back – like right back – to a new beginner. I mean, knowing how to ride a bike can only help you so much on a unicycle. It's been a little humbling for us, she was telling me. And so it’s kind of fun. And honestly, for me, it's funny. 

I have been watching her and the kids struggle to get on this, and I'm vaguely remembering what it was like for me to be a beginner on the unicycle. But the years of enjoying it and just having fun on it, have kind of made it. So, I almost can't even remember how hard it was. In my mind, it almost seems like, “Oh, it wasn't that bad. It was just a couple of hours.” But as I remember, it took a week or two of just constant focus before I was able to go more than a few feet on the unicycle. And even longer than that before I was able to ride long distances on a unicycle without falling off. And so my wife is back in that beginner mindset right now where she's like, “Oh, my goodness!” It's making her actually have a little more empathy for our kids as they're learning different things in life right now and as they're growing. And it's funny how going back to that beginner mindset in a big way with something like this unicycle has actually helped my wife in those ways. And she says it's really helped her. And it's made me think, “Oh, goodness! What should I be doing right now? I need to learn something different.” So that it can take me back to that mindset. So it will make it so that I have a little more empathy with people I'm working with and helped me have a little more patience with my people at work, or my people at home, my family; help to have a little more empathy with them. 

So, having that beginner's mindset is pivotal. So, you're sitting there, trying to help somebody, take yourself back. So, I love Stephen Covey, I've shared his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, different habits overtime on the podcast. And the one that just keeps coming through my mind – you've probably heard me say part of the quote throughout this episode already – is Habit 5. And Habit 5 is this: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is all about seeking to understand others, empathy is all about seeking to understand, and then having a genuine concern for those people, like Simon Sinek says. You put those together, you'll begin to see people as people, see people as they truly are. And it will change the way you interact with them; change the way you communicate with them; change the way that you understand them, and the way they perform at work. 

And so, here is your challenge for this week: Find something new that you want to learn, which is exciting, in and of itself, I love learning new things. And see if this experience can help you have a little more empathy with those at work that you're leading, that may or may not be learning new things right now. So, if they're learning something new, this may help you be a little more empathetic, a little more understanding, and allow you to be able to be a little more vulnerable with them. So, perhaps, you always wanted to learn to whistle. I've always wanted to learn to whistle, the really loud whistles because I can whistle normal. But as far as I’m doing those loud whistles with your finger in your mouth, I always feel like I get so close, but I can't get quite there. And some of you out there, it's super easy for you. You probably can remember when you couldn't put your fingers in your mouth and do that super loud whistle to get everyone's attention. Man, I'd love to do that. Maybe that's what I should do for mine, is do whistle. Maybe you'd love to learn calligraphy; to write beautifully on the written page. Maybe you'd love to learn to make bread. Man, it’d be so amazing. But you look at it, and you think, “Ah, it'd be difficult to learn.” Heck, maybe you even want to learn to ride a unicycle, it’d be amazing. Give me a call if you want some tips or resources, I can connect you. But take the time to learn something new. And then take that learning experience, and take that back to your leadership at work and at home with your family so that we can have a little more understanding, a little better communication, a little more patience with those in our lives. You got this. I know it. Until next week.