Sarah Davies is the Workforce and Organisational Development Directorate Business Manager at the Welsh Ambulance Service: a role that shapes, supports, and enables delivery of the organisation’s ambitious People and Culture objectives. Sarah was instrumental in developing the Trust’s ambitious Transforming Education and Training Strategy (2019-2022) and is a champion for continuous, lifelong learning for all. Sarah joined the first year of the Climb Wales leadership programme and developed the Unicorn Fallacy as the subject of an Ed-Talk for the programme before writing it as a blog.

I want you to imagine being a little, grey donkey with a broken coat hanger strapped to your head, in a roomful of unicorns. You are dazzled by their beauty, their majesty, their effortless grace. And you are there, at knee-height, scratching and trying desperately to hide, to blend in, to disappear. That is how my CLIMB journey began.

When I turned up at the first session in October, I was that little donkey with a coat hanger strapped to his head, in a roomful of unicorns. I was surrounded by people who oozed confidence, competence, and credibility. I was convinced I was there to make up the numbers or I was just this little struggler that the faculty team had taken pity on. I was afraid to show myself in case they suddenly saw me as that little donkeycorn and cast me out for not being a unicorn.

It is not the first time I have felt like that; I have embodied that trembling little donkeycorn so many times when I have been in meetings with colleagues, and they demonstrate their unicorn-like ability to verbalise their thoughts on the spot or engage in small talk without even a hint of awkwardness. It has left me feeling and believing that I must be a different breed, that I do not belong with the unicorns; I am simply not special enough or skilled enough or just ENOUGH to be a unicorn.

This feels like the right time to pause and introduce you to an emerging scientific model: the Donkeycorn Continuum. So far, I have talked about two creatures: a donkeycorn and a unicorn but there are many shades of donkeycorn, which are represented along the Donkeycorn Continuum, ranging from trembling, sad little donkeycorn to proud, perfectly imperfect donkeycorn.

Now, a continuum is defined as a “continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other but the extremes are quite distinct.” On the left-hand side of the scale, we have the battered, limping, sad little donkey with a broken coat hanger held together with plasters strapped to his head. And on the right-hand side of the scale, we have the sublime, ethereal, majestic unicorn in all its splendour.

So, what determines a critter’s position on the continuum? Well firstly, it is important to consider environment. We will all move about this scale both in terms of how we feel and how we appear to others, depending on the situation. For example, you may be oozing unicorn vibes and pooping rainbows in a Board meeting, but you may be the trembling little donkeycorn when your partner drags you onto the dancefloor at your friend’s wedding or when you are asked to create a SpongeBob SquarePants costume for your youngest child’s school concert, the night before the show.

The other factor that will significantly influence your position on the scale is the presence of donkeycorns or, for the scientists among us, the visible donkeycorn density. Greater numbers of visible donkeycorns helps all the donkeycorns in the vicinity shift right towards the holy grail of the Donkeycorn Continuum: the sweet-spot donkeycorn. At this point on the scale, the donkeycorn is at its absolute, imperfect, glorious best. It is no longer trying to be the unicorn, but it is embracing its authentic self and importantly, is a beacon of light and hope to all the other donkeycorns.

I imagine there are a few questions popping into your head now, such as “how is this relevant?,” “why is this important?” and “how does this translate into the workplace?” If we present ourselves as unicorns, then our people think that unicorn is the goal, the ideal. This means that they think perfection is the ideal. I mean, unicorns are perfect, but they are also NOT REAL. We know that striving for perfection is unrealistic and unattainable.

Sometimes, when I look at leaders I think of the social media platform, Instagram, and how what we see is a curated, manicured version of reality. When we see perfect people documenting their perfect lives on platforms like Instagram, we often feel insignificant by comparison. These are the Instagram unicorns, and we feel like a completely different species. But when we see the Instagram donkeycorns, our souls light up we feel a sense of connection: we can relate.

Similarly, often we ask our senior leaders “are you ok?” and we get a stock response designed to not reveal any kind of struggle or vulnerability because to do so may result in the team losing confidence in the leader. It is a threat to their unicorn status! There is an established culture where senior leaders feel they need to be the unshakeable rock for the team. They must not wobble and, if they do, it absolutely cannot be in front of the people they lead because this might make them seem weak and / or incapable. This longstanding narrative is just that – narrative. And it is so damaging.

This behaviour contributes towards the existence of a blame culture and low levels of psychological safety. Many people are afraid to say they are struggling to be the unicorn; these people are likely to burn out and when they do, they are likely to feel like failures because the unicorns can just keep going, so they themselves must be fundamentally flawed and not cut out for senior roles. This culture also contributes to feelings of imposter syndrome. These things affect absence rates, morale, presenteeism, wellbeing and engagement, and performance and patient care.

Another question you may be asking yourself is “why does it matter if I feel or appear to be a unicorn? I am quite happy with that.” People want to follow people to whom they can relate. We need to feel connected to our leaders. If you are all the way to the right on the unicorn of the scale, you may have some loyal unicorn followers who can relate to you completely, and you may have some die hard donkeycorn followers who look up to you like a hero. But this guy here – the sweet-spot donkeycorn – he has all these donkeycorns who can relate to him and are more likely to want to follow him. Why? Because they can see themselves in him. This is about bringing your whole self and not hiding your flaws and vulnerabilities out of shame.

As Brene Brown says, shame is corrosive, but it withers when it is brought out into the open. Showing vulnerability in this way builds trust and rapport with colleagues, which in turn helps to create a sense of belonging – one of the core needs of our staff, as recognised by Professor Michael West.

Simon Sinek talks about how when the Navy Seals select members for their elite team – Team 6 – they use a trust / performance matrix. On the Y axis, the scale measures performance (i.e., what kind of person you are ON the job). On the X axis is trust, (i.e., what kind of person you are OFF the job). Everyone wants the high performing, high trust person up in the top right-hand corner. But after them, the Navy Seals would rather have someone down the righthand side, scoring lower on performance and higher on trust, because that person has your back no matter what. You have a real connection with that person. They also describe the people in the top left-hand corner of the chart (i.e., the high performance, low trust individuals) as toxic team members and leaders. The people towards the right – they are your donkeycorns. They are the ones who will support each other when things go wrong, they will share their challenges and have high levels of psychological safety. They have built strong relationships, embracing the power of authenticity and vulnerability.

As leaders, we need to show our human side – the person behind the position. We need people to feel safe enough to admit when they have not met expected standards, when they have made a mistake. If we are unwilling to show our flaws, then how can we expect our people to bring their whole self to work or to be honest when they have made a mistake or to ask for help when they are struggling?

Now, you may never feel like a unicorn, but I guarantee that to someone, at some point, you APPEAR to be a unicorn. It can be so tempting to hold onto this, but it is important to remember that more people will relate to you, connect with you, and follow you if you show yourself as the beautiful, sweet-spot donkeycorn instead.

By doing so, we increase the visible donkeycorn density.

So today, I am asking you, as influential leaders, to positively contribute to the current visible donkeycorn density. I am asking you to take a selfie with my donkeycorn filter and upload it to my donkeycorn hall of fame.

You may feel like it is completely pointless or stupid – even more reason to do it! Step outside of your unicorn zone and feel a bit of the spirit of the awkward little donkeycorn. You never know who might see it and be inspired – you may help someone move just one step from the sad, trembling little donkeycorn towards the sweet-spot donkeycorn.

Every day is a chance to move yourself closer to that sweet-spot Donkeycorn status, and to bring others with you. So, challenge yourself to be honest, be vulnerable, and be your true, authentic, perfectly imperfect, donkeycorn self.

The most inspiring people I have met on Climb are the ones who have openly said they are struggling and carried on anyway. They have been open and honest about their feelings of imposter syndrome, how they see themselves, their worries, and challenges, and THAT, more than anything else, has shown me and made me feel that I belong.

I used to think the ultimate goal was to be a unicorn or failing that, I would be happy if people at least THOUGHT I was a unicorn. Now I know the beauty and the power of the donkeycorn and my new goal is sweet-spot donkeycorn status.

Climb is open now for applications for the 2023/24 cohort. Read more on the Climb webpage and apply now!

Avatar photo
Written by:
Sarah Davies