Embracing Vulnerability

How the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy Has Changed the Way I Think, Work, and Approach Industry-Wide Issues

By Rachel Davidson July 25, 2019

I was uncomfortable from the moment I received my first homework assignment for the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy (FLA). I had been instructed to read Dr. Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly and to come to the first class meeting prepared to share my personal story with 35 strangers. Like me, those 35 outdoor professionals had been selected to join Class 4 of the distinguished FLA program, which promises to prepare the “next generation of outdoor industry leaders by teaching them to seek innovation, tackle challenges head-on and champion the causes that are critical to the industry’s longevity.” Apparently, the first step in becoming a great leader is learning to embrace vulnerability, but boy did that make me squeamish.

For the uninitiated (read: me), vulnerability doesn’t come naturally – especially in a professional environment. I’m not the only one who associates vulnerability with weakness, defenselessness and exposure. Brown argues that’s the wrong way to look at it, and the first FLA group sharing session drove home why.

We learned that embracing vulnerability and the uncomfortable feeling that can accompany it is just about the only way to truly understand someone or some topic. We stripped ourselves of the barriers that come with upholding expectations and saving face. The first few weeks of FLA required hard work and learning about ourselves, our goals and how we work with others. It was the type of self-actualizing work required to dig deep and embrace discomfort in order to grow as a leader, an employee and a communicator.

By starting with reshaping the way we thought about vulnerability, FLA set us up for six months of paradigm-shifting, illuminating conversations that would change the way each of us approached our careers, our relationships and our lives, both inside the industry and outside on the trails. Looking back now, I realize that leaning into my vulnerability taught me four key lessons.

  • Recognize Confirmation Bias and the Problem With Newsfeeds

I grew up in the upper-left corner of the United States. It’s well known for its progressiveness, for spearheading the nation’s recycling processes and for being a bedrock of gay rights. I’m comfortable here, as most people are comfortable with the culture and beliefs they were raised with. 

From our very first FLA retreat, I knew I would be having different dialogues with my FLA classmates from those I have back home. Our class included experts in bicycles, footwear, sports nutrition, sustainability and business ownership; there were some people from the Midwest, some from the South, some from the West Coast and some from the East Coast. And we all converged together on a Colorado dude ranch to engage in a dialogue on the most pressing issues of our industry.

I’m so used to hearing and re-hearing the same ideas, both inside and outside of my office. This makes me feel comfortable and not challenged. It happens to all of us, the same way our social feeds deliver content we want to see: It’s all an algorithm based on who’s in your inner circle; it feeds you what you like and agree with and excludes the perspectives and viewpoints of people with whom you disagree.

Our implicit biases limit the way we can work until we learn how to recognize and challenge them. FLA created this learning environment for us, which became just as much an exercise in existentialism as a basis from which we can change the way we communicate, problem solve and approach different ideas in our workspaces. For an industry that’s rooted in leaving positive impacts on the outdoor areas we love to explore, bringing that impact into our offices felt like a natural extension of the work we were all already trying to do.

  • Appreciate Unique Perspectives Through Authentic Authors

While I’m grateful to be part of an industry that aims to amplify voices that have been historically silenced, FLA taught me how much more work there is to be done. I’d done the basics: Reading a few pieces on land appropriation and staying in touch with current events, though as we’ve just established, all of this “news” came from the same sources and within the same circle.

Few of the articles I was reading included bylines from Indigenous authors who reflected (or expressed outraged) about how the public lands debate was interpreted by the native populations who’d been here far longer than any of us who had politicized land ownership. Of those few, fewer comments were shared, the topic being tiptoed around because nobody felt quite equipped to take an opinion on the matter. 

FLA’s digital classroom was the first place where I saw comments like these: “My judgments and disgust come from lack of education,” “It’s easier just to tune out,” as well as “I’m so grateful to this program for opening my eyes and ears to the connection between indigenous people and the lands that we love and are working to protect.” 

This online community became a sounding board to ask, challenge and change the way we held ourselves and our outdoor leaders accountable. It became a judgement-free zone where we each owned up to our faults and miseducation on complicated topics. It was a breeding ground for ideas that evolved into more emails, essays, Facetime calls and engagement than I’d ever had within my own small Seattle community on the subject. Sharing and exchanging ideas and challenging biases became a daily norm; I looked forward to reading my classmates’ posts because each one was so different from the last, and everything posted was voraciously devoured in an effort to comprehend differing perspectives. 

We all want to do better for the world, both outside where the effects of our labor will shape the trails our children eventually enjoy, as well as inside our offices where that education, informed news sourcing and paradigm-shifting change can truly start to make a difference.

  • Navigate the Complicated Landscape of Policy, Tariffs and Governmental Regulations

Before FLA, I had exactly zero exposure to policy work. Lucky for me, FLA is all about diving into the unknown and giving folks a chance to explore ideas far outside their career or job title. Enter the FLA capstone projects.

Seven nonprofit organizations pitched our class their “dream projects.” Their ideas were big, but their bandwidth to achieve them too small. Our groups could provide fresh eyes and bandwidth to turn the ideas into a reality. And so our class split into seven teams of five, each ranking our projects by interest and spending the final three months of our program developing robust, implement-ready plans that we presented at our graduation ceremony in June.

My capstone group chose a policy project with PeopleForBikes. We spent three months trying to understand how states access, use and misuse federal funding, as well as writing a sample piece of legislation. Conducting research for PeopleForBikes was challenging, with no prior understanding of how to navigate a Department of Transportation website and with the innocent assumption that availability also meant accessibility. Unfortunately, our case was much more convoluted and required a lot of teamwork and digging to produce our final report and legislation.

My capstone research reminded me of the module the class worked on concerning the latest trade tariffs that affect outdoor industry goods shipped from China – yet again, an area I had no prior knowledge of and, again, an assignment that led to revelation. Simply asking my colleagues questions about how trade impacts their jobs I had never thought to ask – including having honest conversations about the state of our business and relationships with overseas factories – completely changed the way I read the constant stream of news headlines warning that the “trade war” would cost all of us, in more ways than just the money.

Working on the capstone project gave me the chance to use the communication and leadership skills I learned earlier in the program. It was hard work, but ultimately rewarding to dig into an unknown topic and solve a unique issue that impacts the outdoor industry.

  • Leave It Better Than You Found It

The biggest problem with FLA was that there was too much to unpack within the six months of our program – which is hardly a problem at all. I brought conversations back to my officemates, friends, climbing partners, and I continue to do so, even weeks after graduation. FLA armed us with ways to question industry-wide issues, which means each of us have the tools it takes to craft solutions, too.

I’m more determined than ever to leave a positive influence on this planet and its people, using our outdoor industry businesses as a catalyst to do good and using the framework of FLA as a way to think, work and solve problems.