Vivian James Rigney Talks Becoming a Better Leader

Leadeship oragami bird flying

MP recently sat down with Vivian James Rigney, President and CEO of Inside Us LLC, an executive coaching consultancy operating throughout five continents. He has helped implement leadership development initiatives for some of the world’s leading companies and their executive teams. As a climber, he has summited the highest peaks on all seven continents. As a traveler, he has visited more than 80 countries. A graduate of École Nationale Des Ponts et Chaussées (ENPC) in Paris is a renowned speaker and expert on mindset and behavior, whose talks and presentations have inspired audiences globally. A native of Ireland, he has lived in the U.K., Germany, South Africa, France, and Finland and currently lives in New York City. On March 8th, 2022, his book “Naked at the Knife-Edge: What Everest Taught Me About Leadership and the Power of Vulnerability” was published, a compelling and often harrowing true account of his experience conquering Everest and which offers a unique window into lessons on leadership and what it takes to succeed in any circumstance.

Vivian James Rigney headshot
Author Vivian James Rigney / Photo courtesy Vivian James Rigney

Leadership

MP: What are the positives associated with drive, ambition, and the relentless pursuit of goals?  

VJR: Drive and ambition give us a sense of purpose and achievement. We generally feel good about stretching ourselves and being productive toward an essential outcome for us or others. Additionally, having goals and a work ethic are normalized in society as positive attributes. An excellent example of this is the many immigrants to the United States (myself included), who started with nothing but hunger and commitment to building a life for themselves and their children. This represents the very essence of the America Dream, where effort and ambition meet opportunity, allowing for ascension in a relatively short amount of time. This belief in competitiveness and personal betterment is a core attribute of the evolution of this country. To be highly driven is seen as good.  

What are the downsides associated with drive, ambition, and the relentless pursuit of goals?  

When blind achievement of goals defines one’s level of success, the question must be asked, does this equal happiness? For example, when looking at countries with the highest levels of school education, Finland and South Korea are regularly within the top three. Yet, their education systems and approaches are radically different. Finland has relatively short school days, light homework, and focuses on helping children understand and apply knowledge in close collaboration with their teachers. Conversely, South Korea focuses on rote learning, a strict hierarchy between student and teacher, longer hours, and extensive homework. Many students sign up for private cram courses on their weekends and vacations. The test scores between the two systems are similarly high, yet the pressure levels and impact on students’ happiness are markedly different.

In the corporate world, the pandemic combined with a growing generational shift reinforces leaders’ expectations to engage with their teams and get their buy-in more so than ever before. People want to understand the ‘why’ as much as any goal or outcome. Leaders who relentlessly pursue the outcome at all costs risk becoming isolated and disconnected, particularly with younger employees. This can lead to deep frustration from both sides, where each party believes they are right and the other is either wrong, misguided, or simply not motivated enough.

How can we harness the best of ourselves and overcome obstacles on the way to becoming better leaders?

Relentless pursuit of goals can often become a win or lose mission, with fear encapsulating the idea of not being successful. To not achieve the result is a failure. Humans avoid pain more than seeking pleasure, so one must recognize the value of learning, including setbacks, along the way, and the ability to keep people engaged through this process. Learning through failure and the ability to correct course through a process is an inherent part of success. Having a clear purpose for a goal or outcome is essential in directing our efforts and motivation effectively and winning the buy-in of others. If this is not in place, it can become a breeding ground for indecision, miscommunication, and inefficiency. Finally, stepping back, being vulnerable, and recognizing our strengths are important as a leader. In parallel with this is an appreciation of our weaknesses and blind spots and the ability (and humility) to ask others for help in harnessing their strengths and bandwidth effectively.

Why are ambition and inner drive at odds with smart, effective, and emotionally intelligent awareness?

Ambition and inner drive are positive words on the face of it. However, do we know what’s driving this ambition? Many leaders achieve great success in their careers and yet feel a lack of real fulfillment, leading to pushing further and harder. It’s almost like an addiction to achievement, without knowing what we’re doing it for beyond the comforts of money or status.

Under extreme stress, the mind can unravel quickly when drive and determination become hollow attributes on their own. Our appetite for achievement can ultimately lead to a place in which we don’t know where or who we are in life. It’s often referred to as “imposter syndrome.” The ego, what we want to believe about ourselves, and the persona, what we want others to believe about us—two core pillars of education and conditioning—quickly become undone, revealing our true inner selves. Asking the ‘why’ question to ourselves personally is just as important as answering this to others when explaining a goal.

How can becoming aware help us become better leaders?

Self-awareness goes together with self-fulfillment. However, maximizing the former takes conscientious effort and commitment. In a sense, we must get off the roller coaster, take ownership of our awareness, and become accountable to get past ourselves. It’s about letting go, not taking on more. It’s about simplifying rather than making things more complex. It’s about the presence of the mind rather than the action of the mind. Each morning, dawn breaks and represents a chance to reset—to unshackle the past, reduce any busyness that serves no purpose, and not feel like you must constantly prove yourself. At its core, it’s an opportunity to be closer to who you were born to be and move others in the process.

How can giving into the power of vulnerability and authenticity help us become better leaders?

It’s less about giving in and more about recognizing vulnerability as a strength. People want us to be the real deal, to be authentic, and in doing so, to be able to be trusted.

Securing and sustaining followership is a core aspect of becoming a successful leader. We cannot meet this moment without having a healthy self-awareness and congruency. To be at peace with ourselves, to appreciate that for us to understand others, we have to understand ourselves first and then be prepared to share ourselves with them. This is not about sharing everything blindly. It’s about being purposeful around what people need to feel that trust, care, and purpose. Parents know this well, where they have to make tough calls on their kids’ behalf yet ensure that the child feels connected with them. It’s a similar balance with leadership, too, and a prerequisite for success in the current and evolving business environment.