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Vulnerability in Leadership: More than just a buzzword?

It’s hard to imagine vulnerability being spoken about quite as much – or in the same way – in the past as it is today. Thirty, twenty or even ten years ago, it was almost always referenced in the context of a weakness, or ‘exposing our underbelly’. Sadly today, despite what we might say, it usually still is associated with weakness, despite many leadership development programs claiming it to be different.

However, vulnerability is such an important leadership quality, it surely deserves attention. It would be hard to write an article on vulnerability without referencing the pioneering work of Brenee Brown who has inspired a different and worthwhile discourse. Many writers stand on the shoulders of giants like Brown, including me. I’m excited to be joining Brenee later this year in the US to complete the Dare to Lead accreditation program which will no doubt challenge some of my own beliefs and practices. I look forward to sharing the learnings with clients here in Australia and abroad.

This article will discuss what vulnerability in leadership is and why we should be serious about what it has to offer us as leaders. In my next article, Part 2 will discuss the ‘how’ – a real-world guide to creating meaningful people and business results through vulnerability.

The Problem with Vulnerability

In the meantime however, vulnerability is at risk of going the way of many of the qualities and traits we expect of leaders that have lost some of their meaning, such as ‘authenticity’ and ‘strategic’. While many people want to believe in it, and aren’t afraid to espouse its virtues, vulnerability is at serious risk of becoming another over-used word we like to throw around in organisational life. But the more an idea or principle is talked about, and the less it is demonstrated, the more it becomes diluted.

Moments that Matter: Being Human

In my own leadership practice, it is hard to describe the immediate impact vulnerability has on a group of leaders, or a team. As recently as yesterday, I was working with a leadership team as part of our High Performance Team program, where the impact of one person demonstrating vulnerability was immediate. In this particular team, the effect was profound. The team opened up in a way they had never done before. Despite some of them working together for years, they learned something new and meaningful about every person in the team. People connected with each other’s stories that enabled them to understand why they ‘show up’ in a particular way. While people were raw, they looked after each other. It was as a display of pure humanness – humans ‘being’ rather than humans ‘doing’.

Having worked with 1,000’s of teams around the world in our High Performance Team program, there is one thing I know. There are very few high performing teams where its members don’t know each other well. Teams need to be able to move to a place that is different to the usual fast-paced cut and thrust operating rhythm that has become accepted as the norm in today’s organisations. Teams also need to move beyond transactional trust where we trust that you will deliver something of value to me. Trust of course, by default, requires vulnerability. It is impossible to build a high-trust relationship professionally or in our personal lives without it.

Vulnerability and Results

We shouldn’t have to make a business case for vulnerability, but we do. My own experience in running hundreds of leadership development programs, and what prompted me to write this article, is that many remain sceptical. Perhaps because it won’t be perceived as cool or the right thing to say, but when we scratch the surface to examine people’s core beliefs about vulnerability, many don’t believe, or understand, the link between vulnerability and performance. And even if leaders do buy in to the notion that vulnerability is good for business, then many struggle knowing how to be (appropriately) vulnerable.

Here are my top five reasons why we should care about vulnerability in business:

1. Connection

While technology has been incredibly valuable, it has also provided unintended disconnection. Dan Schawbel in his book Back to Human, says, “Technology has created the illusion that today’s workers are highly connected to one another, when in reality most feel isolated from their colleagues.” Being vulnerable allows us to connect with others that then enables the building of deeper relationships. We know that deeper relationships at work have many benefits including increased job performance, loyalty and overall feelings of wellbeing.

2. Trust

I wrote an article recently that outlined, among other things, why trust is important and how it can drive results. For example, high trust organisations experience 32x greater risk-taking, 11x more innovation, and 6x higher performance (Edelman Trust Barometer). And at a human level, treating each other with respect and forming good relationships feels like the right thing to do. As mentioned earlier in the article, you can’t actually develop high-trust relationships without vulnerability and people feeling comfortable around you. The two fit together and can’t be separated.

Why do we feel more comfortable around someone who is authentic and vulnerable?  According to Emma Seppälä, author of “The Happiness Track” and Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project, because we are particularly sensitive to signs of trustworthiness in our leaders. Servant leadership, for example, which is characterised by authenticity and values-based leadership, yields more positive and constructive behaviour in employees and greater feelings of hope and trust in both the leader and the organization. In turn, trust in a leader improves employee performance.

3. Innovation

Innovation is another quality that many leaders know is good for business, yet struggle to create nimble, agile and innovative cultures. Why? It is clear that creating a culture of innovation is no simple exercise, however for many, there seems to be a belief that if enough agile processes are implemented, or they teach people how to brainstorm, or teach people how to use right-brain thinking, somehow magically the culture will change for the better.

While these initiatives will indeed help, they are insufficient. Like making your favourite meal or baking your favourite cake, there is usually one key ingredient that, if missing, is bit of a show stopper. It would be like not having chicken in a chicken schnitzel, or not having flour in your favourite muffin. Yes you guessed it, the primary ingredient required to create an innovative culture is vulnerability. Being innovative is courageous and risky. Why? If people don’t feel safe, they won’t offer up ideas, engage in ‘radical candour’ or put themselves out there by declaring something has to change.

There are many forces in organisations that are perfectly happy with the status quo, otherwise it wouldn’t be the status quo. Your organisation is perfectly aligned to get the results it is getting – for better or for worse.

“Your organisation is perfectly aligned to get the results it is getting – for better or for worse. “

4. To Partner is to Lead

If you want to create change in your organisation then you need to be more ‘leader’ than ‘manager’. And in order to create meaningful change, leaders need more partners than followers.

Sure, the notion of ‘follower’ is a convenient and somewhat quaint notion that there is a leader and then there are followers – but the world has moved on and so should you – if you haven’t already. What modern organisations need is a culture of partnership, collaboration and yes, even service. While I acknowledge that most teams have a formal head whose role it is to co-ordinate and guide the activities of team members, an effective leader will also understand the role they play and will be flexible in how that role comes to fruition.

Authority can work okay as a platform when the work is of a technical nature (we know what to do and have the knowledge and skills to do it), but anything other than this type of work requires a different approach (for example in adaptive work where the solution may not be clear or follow a linear, predicable pathway – think almost any change!).

Self-aware leaders will share leadership, partner rather than tell, guide rather than direct. When was the last time you enjoyed ‘following’ someone who just told you what to do? Perhaps never.

In order to partner effectively and not simply rely on the formal authority vested in your role, you must be able to connect, build trust and have meaningful relationships with people. In other words, we need a vulnerability and authenticity in order to partner successfully.

5. Building Learning, Growth and Resilience

I remember in the 1990s there was a whole genre of university courses created to teach people how to teach others how to ‘recreate’ because in the future (e.g. the 2000s) the nature of work would have changed so much that we would have oodles of spare time on our hands. With so much spare time, how would we use it productively? We do need to learn how to ‘re-create’ and renew ourselves, but for very different reasons. Life seems to be getting busier and busier in an always on, connected digital world.

One of our primary tasks as leaders is to grow and develop confident, capable and resilient people. We can only do this if we focus on these things. In my experience, these outcomes are subordinate to task achievement. We busily tick off our ever expanding task list, often at the expense of growing and developing the very people who are doing the work. If we can be vulnerable and in turn promote those around us to be vulnerable, then we are far more likely to fast-track employee development. The opposite of this is a culture of hiding mistakes, always trying to appear like we’re on top of things, and managing an external persona that we think will make others thinks we’re worthy to be in the roles we occupy. Vulnerability is the key to you creating an amazing learning culture and workforce who will help your company outperform.

In part 2, we will discuss how to be a more effective leader by being more open, authentic and vulnerable.