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The Boldest Act of Business Leadership

If you were to ask people, “What is the boldest act of a business leader?”, what answers would you expect to hear? Perhaps you are thinking “starting a new venture” or “challenging the established industry leader” or “reinventing a struggling company.” If you were to ask, “What is the most important attribute of successful leaders?”, you might expect to hear “intuition” or “willingness to risk” or “ability to make the tough calls.” Surprisingly, there is one answer to both questions that increasingly is seen as an essential quality for leadership success – vulnerability.

The word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin term for “wound.” A dictionary defines vulnerability as “being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed.” In the minds of many leaders, vulnerability is a weakness to be avoided at all costs. The 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle promulgated what became known as the “great man theory” of leadership. According to Carlyle, leaders who shaped history were “heroes” with exceptional personal qualities (with which they were born) such as superior intellect, unique genius, and outstanding courage. In Carlyle’s view, there was no place for vulnerability.

“The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability … When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.”

– Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks

Today, however, there is another way to look at vulnerability. According to this view, vulnerability means being open, honest, transparent, authentic, and humble – leadership qualities that build trust and commitment. More voices today are openly acknowledging the obvious fact that leaders are imperfect and are advocating for leaders to be more vulnerable to become more effective and successful.

Courageous Leadership

Author Brené Brown includes vulnerability as one of four pillars of courageous leadership. Her research finds that vulnerability – defined, in part, as emotional exposure – is about stepping up, being brave, and “leaning into courage” to build the trust and confidence that engenders followership and results in stronger performance. This is the reason that CEO Angela Kambouris writes that “being vulnerable is the boldest act of business leadership.” (Entrepreneur, May 19, 2018)

Myth: Vulnerability is Weakness

Vulnerability “does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It means replacing ‘professional distance and cool’ with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Leaders are taught to project an image of confidence, competence, and authority. However, frequently this comes across as a lack of authenticity and trustworthiness (Harvard Business Review, December 2014, “What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable”). Vulnerable leaders inspire and build relationships that lead to better performance.

This conclusion is echoed by Augusto Giacoman, Director with PricewaterhouseCooper’s strategy consulting business, who points out that “Leaders do not have to be perfect in order to be successful. Quite the opposite. Admitting mistakes (and) being open and honest … yields far more effective results than projecting an untouchable façade. Tough leaders may inspire through fear or intimidation. Vulnerable leaders inspire with authenticity and humanity. And it’s the latter that is more likely to yield better results.” (Strategy+Business, November 29, 2017)

Benefits of Vulnerable Leadership

There are a number of compelling outcomes that result from leader vulnerability:

Leadership vulnerability …

Leads to

Acknowledge uncomfortable topics and encourage people to talk about them. If employees see that their leaders bring up the “elephant in the room” topics for discussion, they feel freer to talk about them as well.

Less tension and stress at work

Admit mistakes or poor decisions and acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers. When leaders are transparent, employees are more likely to contribute their ideas and take risks in trying something new. Ideas and efforts from all levels result in a more competitive organization.

Better flow of ideas, creativity, and innovation

Be open and share information honestly and authentically. You set the tone for what is acceptable to discuss and what is not. By your example, you signal that such communication is not only acceptable but is the norm

More effective communication

Encourage employees to surface problems rather than keep them hidden. Admitting your own mistakes will create a climate where employees are more likely to bring up their mistakes without fear of retribution.

Problems identified earlier

Minimize the need for people to try to impress you or others, or to seek approval by looking good. Show that you value less withholding of information, and more collaboration and cooperative effort for the overall good of the organization.

Better teamwork and cooperation

Model being transparent, open, and authentic to create a healthy and vibrant environment that is more enjoyable for everyone. (The need to guard against what is shared openly can create a secretive climate that people dread.)

Healthy and fun workplace

By being authentic and vulnerable, you help forge the connections and relationships that give people a reason to stay even when offered more money or benefits. (People who do not feel emotionally connected to a workplace are more likely to leave.)

Connections resulting in less turnover

(Adapted from Harvey Deutschendorf in Business2Community, December 12, 2017)

The time has come to stop expecting leaders to be perfect and, instead, to embrace vulnerability as “the boldest act of business leadership.”

Dee Oviatt is Senior Training Consultant at ATW Training Solutions. Dee can be reached at dee@atwtraining.com or by calling 515.727.0731.


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