By Patrick Malone
The image of the backslapping, bigger-than-life, supremely confident, authoritative manager has probably done more damage to organizational success than any other single factor. This dated persona of a great leader who knows all of the answers and rules with a forceful personality has fostered micromanagement and a lack of communication and distance between leaders and the people under their supervision.
Under this type of leader, adherence to organizational values is directed, not inspired. Formal interactions cloaked in strict organizational cultural norms are enforced on a regular basis. People work for their paycheck, not for the mission.
Contrast this with the leader who exhibits vulnerability. Vulnerable leaders are seekers. They are tremendous listeners and have a knack of connecting with those they lead in a meaningful and human way. They build trust and fuel innovation. They welcome questions. As stewards of their organizations, they take ownership not only of the organizational mission, but also of the people who deliver that mission on a daily basis.
Far from being weak, vulnerable leaders exhibit the ultimate strength—the power of being themselves. They find no need to fashion their persona with unnecessary decorum or accoutrements of office. They are as likely to make important agency decisions as they are to grab a brown-bag lunch with those they lead. They care, and they demonstrate this through an unwavering desire to connect at a human level, a level that transcends artificial protocol.
Barriers to Vulnerability
Neurologically, being vulnerable is not something that we are prewired to do. The human brain is a remarkably efficient and powerful organ. When a thought occurs, neurons fire between one another. If this thought occurs multiple times or over the period of an entire life, that pathway becomes far more instilled in the brain.
Imagine the ruts on the country road where wheels automatically slip into predetermined pathways. This is precisely what happens with thinking in the brain. These neural pathways are extremely beneficial during times of emergencies. They help with quick and decisive decision making. And since we default to them automatically, they help us survive in volatile environments.
We can jump out of the way of a moving bus, or we can dodge the books that fall off of the shelf hurdling toward our head. This mechanism is effective for quick impulsive reactions and even for demonstrating the façade of a manager who "knows the answer," but who is less than perfect for fostering vulnerability and connecting with others.
With this complicated neurological circuitry working as our operating system, it's no wonder we circumvent vulnerability. Being vulnerable places us in a position where we set ourselves up for potential hurt or disappointment, and this hurt can go deep. Consider the feelings of trusting a friend who eventually betrays you. The genesis of these fears can be found in the early relationships we have in life. Those that were reared in loving, stable homes are far more likely to be willing to allow others to come into their life.
Likewise, those who grew up in less than loving environments may avoid exhibiting vulnerability in their personal and professional life in order to protect themselves against pain. If these individuals have a subsequent experience marked by hurt or distrust, they will tend to retract into a psychological cocoon, protecting themselves from future risks.
From a workplace standpoint, it is common for managers to see vulnerability as a weakness. Leaders may suspect that if they show empathy or shed a tear between the hours of 9 to 5, it somehow diminishes their stature and authority. They may be unwilling to share information for fear of losing a competitive advantage. Managers may be less trusting of others in the workplace, or they may keep a distance so they don';t become attached to people.
Here are three hypothetical scenarios (scenarios are shown in italics) that illustrate the value of leaders who demonstrate vulnerability.
Sensitive and Caring
I was always impressed with my city manager's sensitivity. Every week, he would host department meetings, which included some heavy hitters from the city (e.g., police department, parks and recreation, utilities, legal services).
The issues that we discussed were often contentious. Budgets were tight, and there were pressures from the council to reduce staff. It seemed like no matter what we did, residents were always protesting something outside our city hall.
Yet no matter where we were in the discussion, or who was speaking, he would always stop the meeting when the custodian came in to empty the trash and dust the office. He greeted him by name and would sometimes stand up and walk over to him so he could privately inquire about a personal matter.
I once overheard him ask if the custodian's daughter had been accepted to a local community college. I had no idea the city manager knew this guy that well.
Exhibiting vulnerability in front of others is not a weakness; rather, it's a tremendous strength. When a manager has the courage to stop a meeting where there are many important people in the room in order to have a short conversation with someone who they care about, it sends a message at an extremely human level.
This need not occur only in meetings. What about when passing someone in the hallway or noticing them in a crowded room? The dynamic of taking the time to speak to someone and express genuine interest in their lives is indicative of a leader concerned about the well-being of the people in the organization.
Since leaders are often the most watched in the organization, this means people notice what they do and don't do, and say and don't say. Behavior that exhibits an intimate and personal connection with people sets a clear and powerful tone for the organization.
Simple acts of kindness become legendary as the story is retold over and over. This has the benefit not only of underscoring important organizational values, but it also serves as a catalyst for legitimate organizational culture change.
I guess I should have been intimidated by my supervisor in the health department. She had diplomas all over her wall and was clearly an accomplished scientist. I mean, we are talking about an extremely educated person with a tremendous amount of prestige and well respected in her field.
It seems she was always being interviewed by the local paper or television station. And, she had that presence that told anyone in the room that she was important. But I always sensed she was just one of us. Maybe it was that she had lunch in the cafeteria with the rest of us almost every day, loved to tell corny jokes, or how she greeted people by name.
People who are comfortable being vulnerable are authentic, and their coworkers know it. Research suggests individuals have a subconscious ability to assess authenticity. Through a complex series of chemical reactions, the neurological engines of our brain actually mirror what others are feeling and doing. This allows us to quickly assess the validity of what we're witnessing, and act accordingly. When people smile at us, for example, we're likely to smile back. When we resonate with someone, we feel a connection.
Conversely, when we sense someone is not authentic, we're generally right. This explains that uncomfortable feeling we have when we are confronted with someone who appears to be too nice or overly familiar. Resonance has the added benefit of building trust, which is the lubricant of any organization. When it is not present, the organization, like a car engine, will seize and fall apart.
When we trust someone we're more likely to risk asking an off-the-wall question. Staff are willing to take calculated risks to improve organizational performance. Failure is not feared. Instead of penalizing failure, vulnerable leaders use it as an opportunity to encourage growth.
Open and Honest
We knew things were bad. Our county office was on the wrong side of the most recent series of budget cuts by the county board, and our supervisor laid it on the line in our morning meeting. She was open and honest and encouraged all of us to do what we needed to do to look out for our careers, even if it meant taking another position elsewhere. Three months later, not one person had left, nor expressed a desire to do so.
We trusted and admired our boss, and we would never let her down. Maybe it was because of her willingness to be so open, honest, and caring—even though she had to know we all could have abandoned her.
There's often tremendous pressure on managers to hold to the "company line." While there may be good reasons for this in limited circumstances, more often than not managers will use the organizational line as a crutch for their inability to connect with those whom they lead.
It's far easier for managers to point to a nebulous third party as the cause for organizational problems instead of welcoming the feelings of those impacted. They end up using the acceptable agency language, carefully crafted to say only the right thing.
When leaders are forthright in their communication, they eschew the tendency to overthink how they present bad news. They speak from the heart with candor and a palpable commitment to their values.
People feel informed. The shared information allows for constructive debate and creative solutions. Everyone gets to play, so everyone can take ownership of the path forward. The result is a more loyal and committed workforce.
Practice makes perfect. Follow these suggestions on your journey to becoming a more vulnerable leader:
Accept it. In a public service marked by volatility, complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty, claiming not to be exposed is haughty at best. Vulnerability is a given in today's environment.
Embrace the unknown. No manager should be expected to have all of the answers, and vulnerable leaders do not feel they need to. Physicist Albert Einstein once noted that if he had one hour to solve a problem, he would spend 59 minutes asking questions and one minute coming up with solutions. The best solutions come as a result of the best questions.
Practice self-awareness. Recognizing your emotions as they come and go throughout the day is the first step to healthy emotional intelligence. If you're feeling it, chances are others are noting it. Take stock of your feelings and the impact they have on your performance.
Share. This means everything: thoughts, fears, credit for a job well done, and information. The mere act of opening up is the essence of vulnerability and sets the stage for beneficial dialogue with team members.
Be aware of others. While you are on your life journey, remember that others are as well. Be sensitive to their needs and the anxiety they may have as you uncover the new you. Be patient, kind, and forgiving. Help others feel safe in your presence.
Remember the social fabric of the organization matters. Content matters, but context matters more. When managers expect work to be a sterile, by-the-book impersonal environment, the doors are not open to connection at the soul level.
Empathize, don't sympathize. Sympathy is an analytical practice wherein one person judges another and renders an assessment. Empathy requires reaching deep into one's soul to rediscover past feelings of sadness or fear. It is the latter that changes lives.
The Last Word
There is no doubt that vulnerability isn't without risk. Vulnerable leaders put their hearts on display for all to see. And while the perfect outcome every time isn't likely, the rewards are well worth it. Those whom you lead will connect with you at the human level, they will share more, they will look after you, and they will care.
There hasn't been a workplace survey in years that has found that workers want their leaders to be more technically skilled with the detailed processes and procedures that drive organizations. Rather, what research consistently shows is that the women and men of our workforce are looking for leaders who care and who are empathetic, connected, and relatable.
Vulnerability is the first step toward making that happen.
Patrick Malone, Ph.D., is director, Key Executive Leadership Programs, School of Public Affairs, American University, Washington, D.C. (firstname.lastname@example.org).