By Cindy Barber
Brené Brown defines vulnerability, as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Often believed to be a weakness, Dr. Brown's research has unearthed that vulnerability is actually our best measure of courage. You may have people in your organization in leadership roles on an org chart, but no one is actually leading without courage. Vulnerability pushes us outside our comfort zone, requires us to disarm ourselves and to be authentic. It makes us say "I don't know" when we don't know. It asks us to try new ideas out, to be willing to fail, and to let go of what people think to pursue excellence. It pushes us to own up to our mistakes, ask forgiveness, and clean up messes we make without blaming others. It is hard, but it is brave, and it is what employees are desperate to see in their leaders.
The following are five leadership competencies that are directly impacted by a leader's ability to be vulnerable, authentic and brave. Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone?
1. Building Trust
To trust your employees or your team is a vulnerable act. To be trustworthy, you must be authentic and consistently choose what is right over what is easy. In his book "The Five Dysfunctions of a team," Patric Lencioni says that trust is the foundation of a healthy team. On a larger scale, it is the foundation of a healthy organization. In organizations with large amounts of trust there is acceleration of everything. Conversely, the tell tell sign of organizations with low levels of trust is departments that act as silos and everything takes forever to happen.
2. Lead Through Change
The vast majority of people we assess are not change agents. In fact, most of us will choose the devil we know over the one we don't almost all of the time. We often hear the laments of "this is the way we have always done things," and a nostalgic longing for the rearview where everything was straightforward. Change is hard in an organization, whether trying to get everyone to follow a new process, embrace new technology, or survive a merger or acquisition. The leaders who are successful in minimizing counter-productive behavior and fear admit that there will be things that will likely go wrong. They are intentional about continuously earning trust and don't try and hotwire it at the last minute with the "just trust me" pleading most of us have experienced at one point or another. They let other's voice their ideas and concerns and focus on empowering their people with the information and tools they need to navigate the change successfully. They are in it with their teams not ruling over their teams to get them from point A to point B.
3. Succession and Growth
You can't promote from a robust internal bench if your high-potential employees are job-hopping like Mexican jumping beans. According to an Economic News Release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018, the median number of years that wage and salary workers have worked for their current employer is currently 4.6 years. That same article cited the median tenure for workers age 25 to 34 is 3.2 years. So how does vulnerability play here? Top leaders and middle managers must have the courage to let go of their own fear and insecurities lest they get in the way of allowing someone to try, mess it up, and grow. When employees are developed and see a path for advancement they are more engaged and less likely to leave.
4. Accountability and Constructive Feedback
The reason we call them hard conversations is because they are hard conversations. We avoid them because we are worried people won't like us, we might hurt their feelings or conflict will erupt. A few years ago, we were working on a safety initiative with some operators on a manufacturing floor. We learned of a guy that climbed on top of a machine while it was running to fix something. One slip and that fellow would have been shredded to pieces. Another employee watched the whole thing and didn't say a word. When we asked the employee, who witnessed this why he didn't stop his colleague, he said that the guy was his best friend and he didn't want to make him mad. While that sounds crazy, this happens all the time in various situations. Maybe you have a manager that wants to build a strong team, but you know that all of her department is complaining about her lack of communication. Do you put yourself out there to tell her? Is it kinder to help her or to let the backchanneling in her department continue? Consistent accountability and feedback are crucial to the success of a department, and a company, and both are vulnerable acts.
5. Excellent Decision Making
Vulnerability in decision making..... hmm...does not sound good initially. However, if leaders don't have the courage to be vulnerable enough to say "I have no idea what to do about this, but we are going to pull a room full of smart people together and figure this out", you often end up with the "know it all" who does not "know it all". The smartest and quickest among us are not always the best strategic thinkers. The very skills that make talented engineers, IT professionals, and finance geniuses tend to fight against their ability to look at something from 10,000 feet, especially during stressful or deadline-driven situations. We all need to be brave enough to ask for a second pair of eyes on something at times in order to make great decisions
The second place that vulnerability benefits decision-making in an organization is in the area of modeling and shared ownership of a problem. One of the biggest frustrations I hear from managers is that their teams wont make decisions. When I poke around a little what I find is that often decisions are ultimately made by the manager in a vacuum. The rest of the team doesn't feel they have the autonomy nor the responsibility to problem solve and make decisions so they don't. Being at least a little vulnerable to say, "how would you handle this?" or "I think this would work - what do you see that maybe I don't?" is a game-changer in getting others to engage and participate in making sound decisions in their departments.