Last night I met Ed Balls and was surprised, sad and hopeful in equal measure to see in him a #leadership role model for CEOs…


…because he demonstrates the truth in the apparent contradiction that revealing your vulnerability makes you a stronger leader. He was speaking at a Whizz-Kidz charity event at The Ivy Club to which a client had invited me.

He spoke of his stammer; his daily terror in dealing with it; the jibes he endured as Education Secretary for not being able to “even get his words out” in the House of Commons. But it was the manner of his “coming out” which illustrates the power of allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

He had started to work on his stammer, had even told a few people and had produced a DVD on stammering for primary school children. At the launch event of the DVD he “blocked” during his speech. He suffers from “interiorised stammering” which causes the blocking of words.

After the speech, a parent of one of the children who featured in the DVD called him a coward for not fessing up to his stammer as his child had done and especially for not giving the children confidence that they too can have a stammer and still become a Cabinet Minister.

After this episode, he revealed all in a newspaper interview. The process transformed him, changed people’s view of him and also reduced his stammer.

I bought his new book – Speaking Out – which was on sale at the Whizz-Kidz event and joined the queue to ask him to sign it. When my turn came, I asked him if he had heard of Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly, recommended to me by a client, which explains in detail how the courage to be vulnerable can transform your life and how it backs up what he said. I said I would send him the link.

I found him to be surprisingly “nice”. An inadequate word, I know. I had never warmed to him when he was on television when in Government and in Opposition. But last night I felt moved by his candor about his stammer, the decision to take part in Strictly Come Dancing – a massively popular TV show which I never get to see – and how the reputation of politicians become fixed in the minds of people.

I felt sad that this man who could have become Chancellor and could be now helping to deal with Brexit endured so much for so long before finding a way to confront his demons. We all carry some secret, which prevents us from being who we can be. The lesson for leaders is that if you tell people who you are, they are more likely to like you enough to follow you.

He wasn’t alone in the room with this story. A young woman in a wheelchair told a moving story of how Whizz-Kidz had helped her to overcome the obstacles in her life enabling her to go to Cambridge, live a full student life and is now a lawyer in the City. In her case, while her physical vulnerability is evident, her internal vulnerabilities were as hidden as those of Ed Balls. They both spoke equally well of facing and overcoming these. You could do worse than to send a few quid to Whizz-Kidz, before the pound falls any further.

Ciaran Fenton

October 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335

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