Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” is what clients value most.  Grace writes a regular column for WRAL TechWire. 


RALEIGH – I shared last week my belief and best argument demonstrating that vulnerability is a critical leadership trait.  Vulnerability is inextricably linked with trust as well as empathy.

These traits are important in giving and receiving critical feedback, important skills for team members to learn –  how to give and to take gracefully.

Ping Fu, founder and CEO of Geomagic, which was acquired in 2013 by 3DSystems, shared with me nearly two decades ago, when she first became a client, “I seek truth, not comfort.” CEOs tend to be in a bit of a bubble so it is rare for them to hear the unvarnished truth.  Ping wanted to make sure I knew that the absolute truth was important to her and that was also her expectation.  I soon learned another client Steve Wiehe, former president and CEO of Triangle-based SciQuest, viewed feedback as a gift, for which we say “thank you.”

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“Touchy Feely” at Stanford GSB

For nearly 50 years, the most popular course at Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) has been OB 374: Interpersonal Dynamics.

Better known as “Touchy Feely.” 90% of Stanford GSB students take the course, and it’s likely the only course that is actively discussed at other campuses. Students learn the absolute importance of vulnerability, trust, and empathy in forming close knit relationships.

Students describe it as “the most important class I took” and the one with “the greatest lasting impact.”  “The honesty and rawness is like nothing else” as “it’s an exercise in self-awareness and openness.”  It’s akin to intense group therapy.

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I had the chance to catch up with my MIT classmate, Dave Lyons, about his thoughts on “Touchy Feely.”

A Bay Area serial entrepreneur, Dave is perhaps best known for successfully leading Tesla’s core technology development teams in its early days where he worked directly for Elon Musk. In his biography, Musk says, “Dave Lyons knew how to get shit done.”

Dave shared, “the course and the way of living/thinking was (and still is) very powerful.” At age 34, Dave was the 3rd oldest GSB student in his class. Having seen the world as a professional Racing Crew member and Yacht Captain, before nearly a decade long career at what became IDEO, he thought he already knew a lot about himself and life.

But in his T-Group, the team of 15 that each GSB student is assigned and then divided further into small groups of 3, everyone “got surprised at some point.” A tight knit community, GSB students all knew each other by the time they took this second year elective course. The start of this 10 week class ended up marking the beginning of a long continuous journey of self discovery.

Sitting in their T-Group for 4-5 hours at a time, having a facilitator, but no agenda, the free form discussion led to members receiving truly candid feedback on how they were perceived.

Some input was incredibly hard to hear and quite painful. Other feedback was far more encouraging.

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We all have our own demons

The course culminated with a weekend retreat. They were all sworn to secrecy. Everyone shared really deep personal stories.  This made Dave realize that everyone has something going on underneath the surface.  It gave him an appreciation that everyone is fighting their own demons.

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Trust myself—more

Dave learned that he should trust himself and his instincts more, rather than the composite of  voices of the outward guidance he had been hearing over the earlier 15 years.  He had placed much energy into living his life trying to please other people, when he realized he instead should figure out what he, himself,  truly cared about.

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Giving feedback: Put the mirror up

I asked Dave how he has applied “Touchy Feely” learnings, where he had to give the most raw of feedback to his classmates, to when he has had to give tough feedback to someone who works for him.

“In a business setting, when you need to provide tough feedback, you do so empathetically so it lands constructively, but candidly enough to still be acted upon,” he said.  “It’s up to them whether they will take the feedback. If they don’t listen, it’s on them.  It is not your responsibility to change them.  Your responsibility is to put the mirror up.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Wiehe as a founder of SciQuest, and contained an incorrect hyperlink.  This story has been updated.

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