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The Leadership Podcast

The Leadership Podcast

Why do we do this?

We interview great leaders, review the books they read, and speak with highly influential authors who study them.

How we do this?

#1 We interview great leaders.
#2 We review the books great leaders read and write.
#3 We have fun!

Mar 18, 2023

Vivian James Rigney is a Seven Summits climber, and author of the book, “Naked at the Knife-Edge: What Everest Taught Me about Leadership and the Power of Vulnerability.” A Dublin native, Vivian shares information about his international travels and how he helps senior executives get past their egos, give up old habits, embrace vulnerability, and better serve their organizations. One tool he uses to teach vulnerability draws on his experience near the summit of Everest, where he learned the necessity of clarity and purpose. Listen in for insights on curiosity, peeling back the layers, and getting to the root of issues, challenges and opportunities.


Key Takeaways


[2:25] Vivian is from Dublin, Ireland. He studied business, then traveled the world. He has lived in seven countries, has visited more than 80 countries, and is now firmly planted in New York City. Every time he has launched himself in a new place has been a journey. He has seven books he could write about restarting in each country.

[3:20] Apart from Ireland and the U.S., Vivian has lived the longest in Germany. He learned to speak German and French and he can still speak those languages. He lived in Finland for six winters, and he “can speak to a two-year-old” in Finnish. Vivian believes Mandarin and Finnish are the world’s toughest languages.

[4:35] To make high-impact goals, first be very clear on the goal. Be congruent with the goal. Understand where your value system comes in. If you’re not fully committed to the goal, the words may be right but people won’t see it as a clear goal.

[5:16] Never underestimate the power of subtraction. A list of too many goals diffuses the goals. If you have too many goals, you’ll fail on some. Be honest with yourself about a core list of goals. Say no to less important things. People will understand what the priorities are.

[5:59] Acknowledge progress and celebrate success along the way. People need KPIs and progress reports. Success is not easy. In most cases, there has been a lot of toil along the way. There are people's challenges. So step back and learn from the things that could be done better next time. It helps people to be more authentic. It builds a culture of transparency. It changes the culture for the better.

[7:31] Past guest Simon Sinek stressed, “It’s a journey. It’s a journey. It’s a journey.” You may never get there. Sometimes, once you’ve got there, it’s depressing.

[7:59] High-impact goals benefit and serve others as well as yourself. The people executing the goal do better if they internalize the goal. You can make it clear to them how the end customer is helped by the goals. The minimum should be that your team and people feel connected with the goal. You connect as a leader with your team on an individual level.

[10:08] On fact and assumption: Vivian recalls Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters. To be effective leaders we have to be current. Our nature is to operate from habits. That allows us to deal with what’s happening around us. But we have to be current, which means we have to upgrade what we believe. Are we dealing with information that’s relevant for now or a view we held yesterday?

[10:50] We may be dealing with strong personalities who sound very compelling and sound good, but blow hot air and are not grounded. We constantly have to be asking what is the fact, and what is the emotion. There is a lot of emotion in the world. Distill down honestly what is important. Get past the ego that drives us.

[11:40] Get feedback. Leaders tend to operate in their heads. Do we get perspectives on how others see us and experience us? Their perception is their reality. Use something like a 360-degree survey. Use a sounding board cabinet you can talk to, being vulnerable and open. Being a leader can be a lonely existence. Getting feedback can make you more real and current.

[13:58] After getting past your ego, if you want to bring everyone else in a team to a current reality, Vivian says to be wildly curious. If you think something is off, ask about the situation with no judgment but curiosity to get to the facts, layer by layer, saying “Tell me more about that.” Get everyone to hear themselves and recalibrate their report if necessary. Drill down until you land at a point of clarity.

[17:01] Vivian lays out a path for building a culture of curiosity in your team. After having a conversation about clarity, ask “What did I do differently today?” You may get observations like “You listened, you asked a lot of questions.” This creates shared learning, as people reflect on what you did as a leader. Ask “How did it make you feel to share more, or as I was asking more questions?” It’s curiosity with purpose.

[18:40] Vivian shares some knowledge of the Seven Summits. There is more than one set, with a difference in one of the peaks selected. The people who have done the harder set number in the hundreds.

[19:53] With his clients, Vivian uses a metaphor of a backpack filled with rocks. Letting go of the rocks in your backpack is letting go of strategies and habits you used in past roles that are no longer relevant to your senior role. What used to be ballast is now dead weight. Less is more.

[22:41] Vivian recently talked a senior leader through the rationale of dialing back his intensity. Asking if it was in the leader’s DNA to get up late and lounge around, the leader knew it wasn’t. Being less intense did not mean he would get less done or lose the respect of his team.

[24:34] There’s a basis of fear that has to be overcome. Vivian says it’s the fear of changing the status quo and losing control. Leaders feel they need to stay in control to stay on top of things. That comes at the cost of intuition. To make better decisions faster, tap into your intuition. Controlling too much is slow and inefficient. Releasing control frees you up to harness the strength you’ve built up over the years.

[25:25] The purpose of a coach is to get the most out of the person they’re working with. In a business context, mindfulness is more about letting go of ego and being more authentic, having more impact through followership.

[27:39] Sometimes we need to shed people. We don’t choose our family but we do choose the people around us. You want friends with net positive energy in daily life. You don’t want to have friends that always take energy from you that you need for other relationships. We deserve to be able to give to and receive from everybody.

[30:20] Vivian discusses how to coach somebody to be “more strategic.” Is it that they are strategic but things get in the way, or is it that they are more suited to tactics and execution than strategy? The reality is that they may be in a role they don’t fit.

[33:07] The top challenges facing senior leaders today are loneliness, agility, curiosity, and the data to process and use for faster decisions. The most important thing for leaders today is leading people of different generations, post-great-resignation while being authentic.

[36:15] As a leader, you have ownership of how you recharge and must give the people on your team the same space to recharge. Recharging means different things for different people. If you demonstrate that you value recharging, while allowing your team room to choose how they recharge, it will show your support. Expect optimal performance from your team in the hours they work for you.

[39:20] People may think that climbing Seven Summits makes you a wild, competitive animal that attacks things and figures them out. Vivian writes a detailed story in the book on the power of vulnerability. Everest was difficult for Vivian. On summit day, their guide seemed ill and was mumbling that he couldn’t do it this time. That put Vivian in a dark space with a hugely negative inner dialog.

[40:39] Vivian felt a dark cloud overhead. He believed he couldn’t get up or down and he was sure he would die there. He felt a voice come from deep within him, repeating “Why are you here?” He realized he was climbing to prove himself. The voice asked why he was proving how strong, good, and successful he is. He closed his eyes to make peace with his expected demise.

[41:41] Vivian’s sherpa tapped him on the shoulder and said if they stayed they would die. The sherpa demanded Vivian follow him. Everywhere the sherpa put his boot, Vivian put his boot. He thought he was going down, but he suddenly realized the sherpa was ascending. He followed him to the summit where he appreciated the view from the top but the cloud was with him until he got off the mountain.

[42:37] The learning for Vivian was that we have to know why we’re doing things, not just chasing goals. He appreciates Everest but he regrets not having more clarity in his goal when he climbed it. In many cases, we do things without knowing why. Vivian didn’t need to prove anything. He had already achieved much.

[43:08] As leaders, we have to learn when to let go. We are enough. Ask, “How do I use what I have?” Vivian shares with clients his vulnerability and what he learned from it. It induces them to share their story and they build rapport from that. Examples like that help us to be real. Life is all about real experiences. Vivian uses that in his coaching.

[44:26] Vivian’s thoughts about the inner voice he heard on Everest: “I think that voice is always with us. … We do have to listen to ourselves, to let go of the noise, and we have to do that by disarming the ego. … We try to get people wise and honest themselves, 30, 40 years ahead of the regret, and have fulfilling times from that point forward.”

[46:10] Vivan wrote Naked at the Knife Edge in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic when he felt a vulnerability similar to the vulnerability he had felt on Mt. Everest in 2010. He said it was time to write the book. He wrote it in a few months, then added leadership pieces and reflections to it. It had taken him 10 years to be ready.

[47:33] Closing quote: Remember, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” — Jackie Robinson


Quotable Quotes

  • “How do you make goals that are going to be meaningful and resonant? The first thing one has to do is be very clear on that goal. Be congruent with the goal. Understand where your value system comes in with this. Why is that? Because you’re a leader.”

  • “Never underestimate the power of subtraction. … People tend to make shopping lists of goals. … A list that’s too long gets in the way. It diffuses the goals.”

  • “‘Wildly curious’ means, if you’ve done the introspection on your own head,  which is step number one, do it with others. … [Go in] without judgment. … Peel back the layer and say, ‘Tell me more about that.’”

  • “When they get to senior leadership levels, … they’re using a lot of tools that they used in the past to do what they do today. … It’s about letting go of strategies from the past and habits from the past, which are no longer relevant. … Less is more.”

  • “A decent coach’s sole purpose is not to reinvent the wheel; it’s to get the most out of that person they’re working with.”

  • “As a leader, you have to have ownership of how you recharge and the people under you.”

  • “In many cases in life, we are doing things without knowing why we’re doing it. In my case, I was trying to prove how good I was. How strong I was. But I didn’t need to prove; I’d already achieved.”

  • “I think that voice is always with us. For me, I had chosen not to listen to it earlier, doing previous things. … We do have to listen to ourselves, we have to let go of the noise, and we have to do that by disarming the ego and really letting go.”


Resources Mentioned