Vulnerable Leadership

Authority Doesn’t Cut it. Earn The Right To Lead

Most people agree that to become more effective in our lives we need to become better at Leadership. When we are seen as a leader we are seen as having influence over the people in our circles. With influence we can get people to join us and help us reach our goals. Influence is essential, but it cannot be demanded. It must be earned.

A few decades ago people felt that authority displays were the sure path to being seen as a leader.

An authority display might be a university qualification or it could be a prestigious job title. Authority displays do grant you influence but this influence is waning. 

People are becoming less likely to blindly obey authority figures. They want to choose who influences them. You cannot rely on authority displays and expect to be granted immediate influence any more.

Let me clarify that authority is still one element of persuasion.

You can persuade people by demonstrating competence or having a qualification or a title, however to be a leader you will need to demonstrate more. 

For example let’s say you have many highly credentialed qualifications. People will listen to you based on your authority displays, but can you Lead these people?

Maybe, maybe not.

If people get to know you and see that you are very selfish, privileged or arrogant, you will not inspire them. You are closed off and do not demonstrate vulnerability or courage.

On the flipside maybe you have no qualifications and have had to fight for everything that you have. You have been vulnerable in your life. You do not have a superiority complex because you know that your journey has been hard. You also know that the journey of others around you has been difficult. You are like them a flawed human, but you have persisted and overcome the odds. You can inspire people with your story and lead them.

In the last 10 years, the importance of Authority has started to wane. You can be persuasive on a superficial level, but people will need to see more before they submit to your leadership. People are much more discerning. You may have all of the right qualifications but if you are seen to be a poor leader, you will have very little influence.

So if you want more influence, what should you do?

Should you get even more qualifications and even more prestigious titles?

I suspect you will find yourself in the same position 5 years later.

There is something that you need to understand.

It is not you who decides whether or not you have become a Leader. It is the very people that you seek to influence.

So rather than looking at what you can do, you need to spend some time understanding what these people actually want in a leader.

People want to see courage. They want to see that you are vulnerable, that you have flaws like them. They don’t want to see your latest PhD.

A leader wins the hearts and minds of their followers. We will learn that this is done through authenticity and…vulnerability.

We will talk about trust and how trust is won and why it is the foundation of influence.

We will talk about failure and why you should embrace it and not hide from it.

Your emotions are important. You must bring them up and out and never suppress them. In the past Stoicism was seen as an integral part of leadership. Stoicism has value in terms of resilience and values, however it can hamper your efforts to connect, inspire and lead your followers.

We will discover why relationships are more important than ever and how to foster them in your circle.

We will also talk about courage and how it’s crucial to leadership and how you cannot show courage without showing vulnerability.

Fear Of Weakness

My father would refuse to ever show any emotional weakness and was driven by a fear of failure. Judging by the standards of his time it worked out well for him, but even as a kid I could see some flaws and limitations to his stoic approach.

The mantra was that men should never show weakness, never cry and always win.

The problem with this is that it’s a limited blueprint for life that was only suited to a time when innovation was much less prevalent than it is today. Society was still innovating but it was doing so at a much slower pace.

In today’s world, there is a constant state of flux. Things change all the time. There is a constant sense of uncertainty.

With such uncertainty there is always a risk that things will not pan out how we wish them to. Maybe your company shuts down, maybe you lose 50% of your revenue due to the pandemic and your life partner leaves.

These kinds of dramatic changes are much more likely to occur than was previously the case because changes are coming faster and more frequently. There is a sense of nearly constant uncertainty and turmoil.

Many people are experiencing stress from all of this uncertainty. Some people are experiencing major life changing shifts which can set people back or on a completely unexpected path.

If you endure a major life shift like this, you will experience an intense amount of pain and stress. How you respond to this is largely up to you.

You must welcome change because you are powerless to stop it. It is like trying to stop the tide from coming in. Accept it and welcome it.

Change can be damaging, there is no doubt about it. This is why we fear it. We fear being hurt. We fear being vulnerable. This fear can make us close down as a protective measure. 

Sometimes the fear starts to create “avoidance” behaviour. We start to change what we do in a futile attempt to avoid being hurt from inevitable changes.

This is reactionary. We were not prepared for change. We just gritted our teeth and waited for it. We didn’t process it. We didn’t learn from it and we didn’t change from it.

We were focussed on surviving it.

We want to act like we are fine so we can just “soldier on”.

We dust ourselves off and get up off the floor.

This toughness approach is a common strategy for dealing with change.

I call it the Stoic Approach

The Stoic approach will allow you to bottle up all the pain and continue moving forward.

On one hand this “toughness” could be seen as an asset.

There are a few problems to this. A part of our psyche gets closed off like a dead garden.

We ignore the garden so it dies off. It is almost as if part of our heart dies off and never has the chance to grow.

All relationships get downgraded and damaged. Everybody we love shares the damage.

Yet you survive and soldier one….so that is a win I guess.

My Grandfather was like this. He was extremely tough. He grew up in a tent along a railway line and had to dig up potatoes from a very young age to survive.

He was always making little comments if you ever cried or showed vulnerability.

The emphasis was on toughness and winning at all costs.

I could start to understand what made my father the way he was. His father was training hime how to survive in the only way he knew.

Toughness, don’t cry.

I started to think about how hard it must have been when my dads mother died, whilst he was still a boy. There was just no soft places left in that house.

No grieving permitted.

This quest for building toughness leads to another damaging episode.

My father was slightly built, wore glasses and had asthma. It was decided that he should be booked for an amateur boxing bout to toughen him up.

His opponent was an athletic indigenous youth. My father was knocked out viciously. When he got his senses back the first thing he saw was his father berating him for a weak performance.

The point I wanted to make is that Stoicism is often the result of damage. It is not the best approach to leadership. It’s reactionary and based on fear. It’s making decisions based on the past but not open to the future.

Yes, it provides toughness so you can keep going, but you might be a shell of yourself. You also fail to develop the skills to deal with change.

So in many ways you go backwards a bit and stagnate on a personal level.

The benefit of stoicism is that you survive because you did not show your weakness and hid your vulnerability.

Vulnerability Is A Secret Weapon

We are all vulnerable to certain things. It is part of life and it is a part of human existence.

You could lose your job.

What if your child became addicted to drugs

What if your husband had an affair his secretary?

All of these things could happen and you couldn’t really do anything about it.

All of these events could cause you to feel pain and suffering. What would really happen if you had an emotional breakdown from these events. What would happen if you howled and cried for weeks or months? If you showed all of your vulnerability to everybody watching?

How would people respond to you after learning that you experienced this vulnerability?

Let’s look at some examples

Who is braver? The single mother that left a low paid job to go on to create a million dollar human resources company. (Lucy Chamberlain)

Lucy Chamberlain

Or, the privileged man that inherited his fathers $1 Billion dollar Media business and spectacularly expanded it into the Casino industry where the company grew to become worth over $2b?

James Packer…leader?

In the second example we see financial success on a truly massive scale, not many people can grow a business by $2 billion dollars after all. Yet something is missing.

Vulnerability

Jamie Packer inherited $1 billion. So he was never vulnerable financially. He could have done nothing and would have remained a billionaire. Financially speaking he was always set for life to do whatever he wanted.  We do not see him as brave or courageous because outwardly we see no vulnerability in his story.

In the first example we know that Lucy Chamberlain had her back to the wall. She had no safety net and kids to feed.

She was extremely vulnerable to failure. What she achieved was courageous. Courage inspires all of those around her. Her company C&C Search continues to thrive. Even more interesting is that her inspired leadership flows throughout the company. Many of her staff have won awards and continue to do so.

Jamie Packer may have achieved financial success on a mind boggling scale, but has he been a strong leader?

Jamie Packer was never vulnerable to failure so there is a very low chance that he could inspire people. It is still possible that he could have been a great leader, but the chances are lower. Without courage it is very difficult to lead well.

As it turns out Jamie Packers companies have been plagued with problems stemming from poor leadership. The licensing board has stated that it wishes to cancel his casino license.

So one of the Cornerstone’s to Leadership is vulnerability.

This doesn’t mean that unless you are a single mother, you cannot be a good leader. Nor does it mean the same if you have a billionaire father.

Vulnerability is about authenticity and caring about those that you wish to lead. Don’t worry I will elaborate on this further in later sections

Vulnerability Gives You Agility

Vulnerability is about being open and receptive. Stoicism is about being resilient. Being resilient can be very helpful however in some ways it’s a fearful mindset. You fear being hurt and you fear expressing that you have been hurt. When you become preoccupied with being hurt you tend to focus on avoiding it by shutting down. Most of us have been hurt in a relationship so I am sure you understand this. If you have, you may have avoided getting close to people in future because you were preoccupied with avoiding being hurt again.

When we use Stoic leadership too heavily we experience something similar but in this case it relates to failure. We can become so preoccupied with failure that we shut down actions that may come with a risk of failure.

To thrive in all conditions a business person needs to be able to innovate, adapt and change. Innovation can bring explosive growth and heightened satisfaction, however it also comes with a risk of failure. If you shutdown vulnerability, you will not have the agility required by explosive growth and boundless happiness.

The Truth Hurts

Have you ever had somebody criticize your work? I have and it stung… a lot. I felt a flush of “defensive anger” spark through my body. 

How Dare You!

“What a jackass”

“private school fool “

“Trying to look good in front of the staff”

“I am going to humiliate him”

My ego told me that I knew best and my work was brilliant. I mean I was amazing, my Mom told me all the time!

As the “red mist” subsided I started to question myself.

I put the ego in it’s box and started to self-evaluate with a clear head.

“He said my proposal needed a better risk analysis”

You know what, I was really happy with everything else but not really that part…he was right!

My critic was right and I made the necessary adjustments.

It was very unpleasant being criticized because I felt that it was a personal attack on some level. Even if it was a personal attack, I begrudgingly admitted that the criticism was valid.

It is important that you keep your ego in check and invite criticism rather than avoid it.  A vulnerable leader will admit that they are not infallible. They can make mistakes. 

Sometimes it can be hard to keep our ego in check. We naturally think that we are pretty amazing and in our own ways we are. The problem can come when we have no “boss” and have the ultimate say in every decision.

Being the boss is great, but you want to make sure that you are an open boss. You need to communicate that you are far from perfect and sometimes get it wrong. Even better is to invite criticism and praise your team when they point out improvements to your proposal.

It can be a bitter pill to swallow but if you don’t swallow it you can really lose touch with reality. If you have a team of “yes men” and “yes women” around you, you may just drive the business off a cliff.

Conditions are changing all the time and it’s going to be a real asset to have more eyes on the road

Some Points About Being Assertive

  • People don’t want to be mean
  • When you negotiate
  • When you try to get clients and over promise
  • When you instruct staff

Know What You Stand For

Your professional life is a tough competitive environment. As a vulnerable leader you will be allowing yourself to feel all the ups and downs. You will be confronted by changes. You will have empathy for those around you and you will understand them.

There is a lot going on so you need to make sure you have strong core values.

In  the midst of everything, you will have a mission statement of core values so you can weather the storm but always stay true to your principles.

This is particularly important when things go wrong. You might lose a client or a large advertising investment flops dismally. A competitor may say nasty things about you. As a vulnerable leader, you will reel from disappointment, you will feel anger and frustration, but it will pass. At your low points you will revisit your core values and get back in the fight.

When you know what your core values are, you will always have a sense of clarity. When things get crazy and uncertainty hits you, you just go back to your core values which will always guide your next step. When you have clarity you will never dwell in negativity for too long.

The other benefit of having such clarity is that it gives you the confidence to be bold and daring. You are not concerned about failure because you know it can come at any time. You push forward with assertiveness and self confidence and keep aiming high.

So you need to spend some time writing down your core values:

Develop  Mission Statement

Identify Past Successes

When did you feel successful in a task? When was your contribution in a team setting crucial to a group’s success? Write down some recent successes.

Identify Core Values

  • Write down a list of your core values. What do you stand for? What do people say about you?
  • Distil this down to 5 Values
  • Distil further down to just 1 value.
  • Write Mission Statement
  • Your vision is the way you will put your mission statement to use.

Trust Is Everything

People will follow people that they trust. We demand a high level of trust from people that we work closely with. We do not give trust easily, we hold it back until we feel that it has been earned.

What you may not realize is that we do not hold ourselves up to the same standards that we demand of others.

We overestimate how trustworthy we are. Our default position is that people should trust us immediately because we are inherently trustworthy.

It is uncomfortable to examine our own flaws, yet we find it easy to observe the flaws of others. 

We like to live in denial about our own level of trustworthiness. When you realize that we are not reliable in our own self assessment we can take steps to address it.

If we are brutally honest and admit our flaws we will find that others will notice this and give their trust to us faster.

So we cannot demand trust until we put in the hard work on ourselves beforehand.

Imagine you embarked on a career as a personal trainer and nutritionist. You would be asking for people to trust you that you can help them. If the people see evidence that you are not practising what you preach, they will never trust you. You have not addressed your own flaws. If you started attempting to fix the flaws of others, people would reject your message. They would not trust you because you are saying one thing, but doing another thing altogether.

You must walk the talk!

When we see that people have gone through a very vulnerable period in life and overcome. We know that they know what our personal struggle is. So using the personal trainer example, if we know that you were vulnerable and overcame something like obesity we will trust you greatly. Trainers that have a story like this can amass a huge following and can yield great influence because they earned so much trust.

Other than walking the walk let’s look at the other elements of trust.

Elements Of Trust

The Ingredients of Trust

When you clearly set out the characteristics of trust you can work towards creating a culture that nurtures these behaviours. By doing so you should be able to increase feelings of trust towards you.

Trustful Relationships. Trust is given whenever a strong, healthy and positive relationship is created. To create and maintain healthy and trustful relationships, we must do the following: 

  • Know about the problems, stresses and concerns of others (as well as positive and happy events)
  • When you make decisions, always consult with those who may be affected. It doesn’t mean that you should defer the decision to the affected parties, just that you should show some thought and consideration.
  • Foster and encourage cooperation with others in your circles.
  • Learn how to de-escalate conflict.
  • Give supportive but honest feedback.
  • Defend others when they are being attacked but not present to defend themselves.

Show Expertise and balanced decision making. Understand all elements and processes when making decisions. For example if you wanted to increase software sales by 35% you should know how many hours the tech team puts into support for each client. Would this sales goal put too much burden on support. Are the support department going to get extra resources?

  • Can you provide helpful opinions in situations where you do not have a vested interest. Do people fear telling you things because you will use them for your own advantage? Ideally you want to foster a situation where people come to you rather than avoid you for your feedback and opinion
  • Can you contribute to areas outside of your job description
  • Can you calmly and confidently deal with situations and problems as they arise.

Consistency. Do you always follow up with things that you promised. Do you talk the talk but fail to walk the walk?

  • Do you set a good example? For example, do you complain about missing targets yet always leave early and play golf on Wednesdays?
  • Do you do the bare minimum or do you always try to over deliver?

Confidentiality

Sometimes things will be shared with you in confidence. Most of the time you should honour the person’s request for confidentiality. There are exceptions of course (ie in the case of illegal activity). If you can become a confidante you will earn trust.

Non Critical & Non Judgemental

People don’t like to be corrected all of the time. If you are always jumping on people’s mistakes they will hide them from you. If you acknowledge that you yourself have made similar mistakes and that they should not beat themselves up over it, you will earn trust.

Embracing Failure

In 2020 Romain Grosjean had just started his drive in car 51 for the Haas Racing team’s entry in the Bahrain Formula 1.

The first 2 corners were even better than planned as Grosjean gained 2 places. As he approached corner 3, Romain Grosjean would have had no idea of the catastrophe that awaited him.

His Haas VF-20 hit the barrier at high speed, splitting the car in half. The force and angle of the impact caused the driver’s compartment and the front half of the car to be wedged into the barrier, while the rear half was separated from the rest of the vehicle, igniting the car immediately upon impact. Romain was stuck in a twisted metal inferno for 28 seconds. If the impact wasn’t enough to kill him instantly, surely the fire would. Despite all of  this Romaine was able to exit the car unaided, with minor burn injuries to his hands and ankles.

Romain Grosjean Trapped In A Fiery Wreck For 28 Seconds at the 2020 Bahrain F1

The fact that Romain survived this shocking crash was more than just luck.

F1 Drivers undergoing rigorous training. They spend hours learning how to quickly disengage their safety harness and exit the fixture under extreme duress and with no visibility. The team invests millions of dollars on highly engineered safety hardware that is designed to protect the driver.

What can we learn from this? A lot.

Formula 1 is extremely competitive. Teams and drivers have one goal, to win. Yet they anticipate failure. They expect failure. They know failure is expected to happen effectively. So rather than hide from failure they embrace it so that they can safely navigate through it.

In our own business lives we can fall into the trap of failure avoidance. Failure is unpleasant and we would rather not think about it.

When failure strikes we get shocked and derailed. We nearly get wiped out. We did not build any resilience because we were too scared to think about it.

Often we deal with it after it has occurred. We pick up the pieces and attempt to rebuild. We do not ever want to experience that failure again. But we will!

It would be the equivalent to having Romain driving his F1 car with a cotton singlet and no instructions on how to exit his vehicle. Then when his car turns into a fireball, we try to shout instructions into the cockpit. It would have been a disaster!

With Vulnerable Leadership, we expect failure and do not fear it.

We think about it very early on. We develop a strategy. We revisit that strategy regularly. We build confidence and clarity once we believe that we have the knowledge to successfully navigate through the unexpected.

When you have this preparation you can be bold and fearless (but still vulnerable!) leader. When you instill this culture around you, people will get on board and feel confident to develop as leaders themselves.

Some people will be very uncomfortable with the idea of “learning how to fail”. The self help industry has many mantras that claim that you manifest what you dwell upon. If you dwell upon failure then you invite it in. Let’s be real, can you really control the universe? No but if you develop resilience, you can deal with whatever twists and turns that jump out at you.

Positive thinking can help you get motivated, but it doesn’t teach you what you should do when you experience an undesirable result. This can be compounded when people find that they are emotionally devastated and can’t seem to get past a major failure.

So expect failure. Factor it in. Have a plan for every scenario and you will become a very resilient Vulnerable Leader.

Perfectionism Is Not Part Of Vulnerable Leadership

Seeking Perfection is another type of fear based behaviour. FOr some people it can be very difficult to deal with as it has been ingrained since childhood.

Overly demanding parents often have good intentions in the sense that they believe that they are guiding you to be your best. The problem is that usually the goal posts keep getting moved. You feel that if you could finally achieve parents your parents would finally love you.

You would finally be “good enough”

Your parents figure that you must still have more to give since you seemed like you were able to achieve the very demanding goals set. They raise the bar higher because you must have more to give.

So it becomes a vicious cycle. The person is conditioned to believe that they are either a failure or that they are not quite good enough to be loved. They often will continue to chase this elusive perfection because they believe that they will find true love and acceptances once they achieve it.

FOr the child that is able to become a high achiever, they may realize that nothing changed when they achieved the lofty goals that were set for them. They feel manipulated and lied to. They may reject perfection and rebel hard against it. They realise it was all for their parents happiness but not their own.

There is no doubt that such demanding parenting can definitely get results. But what results exactly. What is the true definition of success? Either way it is a path 

The most likely result of perfectionism is fear. 

A fear of being a failure and a fear of disappointing people. We view success as armour that will shield us and protect us from feeling unloved and unsuccessful. It is completely based on fear.

A Vulnerable Leader is bold and courageous because they do not dwell in fear. They do not carry the baggage of expectation. A perfectionist can achieve incredible things, but there is always a wall. There is a point where the perfection seeker will become disillusioned and cease the never ending quest for perfection. If they do not, they will become dissatisfied for the rest of their lives. They will never arrive at perfection because it is an illusion. The Vulnerable Leader always has the ability to soar past the perfectionist. There is no wall and there is no disillusionment.

Many people will strongly disagree with my comments about perfectionism. They feel that perfectionism is about striving for excellence. The problem is that this excellence is never measured internally. Excellence for the perfectionist is a judgement that is in the hands of others. It could be our parents, peers or even the world at large. Perfectionists really seek approval, yet they never approve of themselves. They believe that they cannot make this decision themselves and that it must come from others. 

Perfectionists also experience a very alarming “law of diminishing returns”.

When they are young children they are lavished with love and praise for seeking elite performance. As they become teenagers they feel the burden of expectation. It is no longer the pursuit that wins praise. The pursuit is expected. Nothing short of “winning” is acceptable. Anything less is a cataclysmic failure. Even if they win, the praise never seems to live up to the hype, nor does it feel as lavish as the praise that was heaped on them when they were children.

Perfectionism is quite damaging because it causes people to put their self worth in the hands of others. When you seem unable to make others or you can never quite match the praise that you feel like you need,  it can lead to poor mental health and self destruction behaviours.

The Vulnerable Leader could not care less about what others think about them. They treasure success as living on their own terms. They love themselves and they nurture people around them.

Vulnerable Leaders are the embodiment of true success.

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