Inspirational leaders are vulnerable leaders: that means senior team members being authentic, honest and open with themselves and one another. With these characteristics comes increased trust – trust in each other and throughout the organisation. Unfortunately, façades frequently get in the way and the reality can look a lot more like a hostile environment with all parties turned against each other instead of presenting a united front.
How vulnerability plays out in senior teams
Vulnerability in the workplace is defined by some key characteristics. It’s not about oversharing or letting your emotions run riot, but striking the balance between openness and recognising that your feelings do have an impact on how you deal with situations.
In a team setting there are three key ways that leaders can move towards achieving vulnerability:
- Not having all of the answers: Holding up your hands and admitting that you just don’t know is a giant leap forward on the path to vulnerability. In a team environment, this is particularly powerful as it breaks down the ‘all-knowing’ façade with your closest colleagues. And if individuals and the team as a whole can admit that they don’t have all of the answers, cooperation will increase between senior leaders and the organisation at large.
- It’s OK to fail: When failure is not an option in the workplace people operate in fear. Acknowledging that failure is a distinct possibility and that failure is OK is liberating. Fear is removed and creativity increases as the option to be brave and explore becomes available.
- Being open to feedback: This makes a huge difference as it signals to your colleagues and the rest of the organisation that you are open to learning and to developing your own self first and foremost. The knowledge that a conversation will not become defensive makes communication much more open and productive.
For a senior team to be truly vulnerable all of the contingent parties have to act together as one. That doesn’t mean behaving like a corporate robot with no deviation in personalities or points of view. What it does mean is that the principles of vulnerability don’t just apply to one person; everyone must accept the same terms and uphold the same standards of behaviour.
Why do vulnerable senior teams matter to business?
To understand why a senior team that upholds vulnerable leadership might be beneficial to an organisation it’s useful to consider what the alternative looks like.
- Lack of innovation, creative stasis – If senior team members, or indeed the wider staff, are afraid to make mistakes then they are less likely to share creative ideas or try different ways of doing things.
- Mistrust – If leaders are not authentic or hide behind a façade the people surrounding them will pick up on it and not feel able to trust in the individual. Without trust, there’s no loyalty and without loyalty, leaders will find it difficult to lead.
- Disengaged staff – Simply telling staff what to do from on high is unlikely to inspire confidence or trust. Without these two key elements staff feel disinclined to buy-in to the organisation’s plans and strategy – at a foundational level people won’t be behind the company.
- Disenfranchised colleagues and staff – Pretending to have all the answers takes away the possibility of someone else helping and leads to a feeling of disempowerment.
- Inefficiency and sluggish productivity – Going it alone slows down progress as it takes much longer to reach a satisfactory outcome than if help is requested.
Vulnerability: a skill that can be learned
Exposing difficult truths about oneself and fellow leaders is uncomfortable; the squirmy feeling in the stomach and the wriggling in the chair feels awkward. Stepping out of their comfort zone in this way allows leaders to move towards a more vulnerable state. So how can leaders get to this place?
In order to make these significant behavioural shifts, leaders need to have an experience that enables them to examine their behaviours and that gives them the inspiration to change. They need to have a development experience that enables them to do the following:
Leaders need to learn, if they don’t already know, how they behave, communicate and relate to others as an individual and as a senior team. Increased consciousness means an increased choice of individual and collective behaviour.
The ability to fail without berating oneself is key to being open to failure. When an individual is compassionate to themselves they can then begin to extend that compassion to their fellow leaders and staff and innovation and creativity have space to blossom.
Practise mindful techniques
Avoiding unpleasant experiences is a natural reaction. Being mindful allows acceptance of both the good and bad and lets leaders bring a ‘calm neutrality’ to all experiences. Acceptance of positive and negative outcomes permits leaders to be comfortable with discomfort.
In order for individuals and teams to reflect on their experiences and create lasting behavioural change, they must reflect deeply on their learning. An environment where the individual or team is free of distractions, everyday stresses and routines allows the mind to wander curiously and be immersed in the developmental experience.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Brené Brown – Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead
Vulnerability feels exactly how it sounds: exposing, stomach-churning, heart-beating, brow-sweating. Uncomfortable. Yet the potential rewards far outweigh the momentary discomfort that comes from dropping the façade. And if senior teams can learn to do that alone and together then the organisation stands to gain considerably. Increased loyalty, innovation and engagement mean better productivity and better business outcomes. And all of that adds up to an increased commercial advantage.