Vulnerable: a sure sign of an authentic or weak leader?

In 2007 Vineet Nayar became head of the Indian IT services giant HCL. With over 160,000 employees around the world, he feared they’d see him as out of touch.

He worried they’d place him on some kind of pedestal. So the new CEO set up around 25 town hall meetings. each with some 4000 people:

The dancing CEO

“I said nothing. A popular Bollywood number suddenly blared from the speakers. I started to dance. I wiggled. I danced into the aisles. I pulled people up from their chairs and danced with them. HCLites, as we call ourselves, still chuckle about my performance.

“After a few minutes the music ended, and I went back onstage to make my remarks. Those words sounded very different coming from a sweaty man who had just proved in public that he couldn’t dance than they would have coming from the emperor at the podium. Two hours of purposeful and animated discussions followed.”

Showing vulnerability can endear a leader to followers and re-enforce their authenticity. Yet it can also risk undermining authority.

So how do we make sense of vulnerability? When does it strengthens a leader’s authenticity, and when does it diminish it? 

“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

John Stumf before congressional hearing
Stumpf fends off criticsm to no avail

Ethical leaders need to be particularly alert about how they come across to people. Especially as authentic—that is, as genuine, and speaking from the heart. To be authentic has subtle implications, including showing vulnerability.

One implication is showing you’re an ordinary person, like every other human being. That is, someone who can be vulnerable, and not some kind of super being. HCLs new boss set out to counter any impression of superiority.

Second, many business leaders misinterpret vulnerability. They fear showing any sign of weakness. So no matter what the situation they try to convey “I know what’s right.”

Such leaders retain a fierce belief that revealing even the slightest hint of vulnerability can be a mistake. For them, any weakness might cause their teams to see them as timid or ineffective. 

Third, it may seem counter intuitive, but vulnerability actually builds a leader’s authenticity. It implies strength rather than weakness. The best leaders get it, they know it makes them appear more human. 

For example, after her selection as CEO of Pepsi, Indra Nooyi’s first action was jump on a plane. She set off to meet her biggest competitor for the job. She was determined to convince him to stay with the company.

Her vulnerability became a strength, as she took courage to show she needed him. Her basic message was “Pepsi would be better with you on board.”

A lesser person would stayed away. Even rejoiced in the departure of a disappointed career competitor.

Fourth, showing vulnerability at work has a close link to being courageous. All leaders need to show courage, particularly those espousing integrity. Yet you cannot show courage without accepting some risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure.

Ethical leadership demands courage because

1) To be convincing about ethics means showing this through daily actions

2) Talking regularly about ethics may meet internal resistance

These make you vulnerable to kinds of risks, threats, and upsetting consequences. For instance, it can be demanding to keep modelling ethical behavior. Even the most secure leader may wonder:

“Am I good enough?” “What if I fail to set a good example?” “How do I know what’s ethical, right or wrong or even legal?”

There are also risks at talking regularly about ethics at work, and trying to promote an ethical culture. Leaders may wonder:

“Will my colleagues see me as a trouble maker? ” “Am I out of step with other senior people?” “Is my wish to talk about ethics seen as boring, or not commercial?” “Do I risk people seeing me as not focused enough on the “real” company priorities?”

Role of Vulnerability

Leaders cannot opt out of being vulnerable, it comes with the territory. Around the world most CEOs (90%) admit they want advice and counsel. Yet two out of three confess they don’t receive it. The resulting isolation skews perspectives and can lead to bad choices.

Vulnerability helps a leader learn some essentials. That is, what it takes to be persuasive, powerful and able to deliver informed judgement.

To be more specific–leaders who show vulnerability will promote open and non-judgmental communications. It also fuels strong relationships; and demonstrates courage.

Vital connections: engagement and vulnerability

Most business executives reportedly understand the importance of engagement. Under half though understand how to tackle this issue.

There is a connection between engagement and leadership vulnerability? The causal chain runs from vulnerability to actual company and individual performance. See infographic.

Through a readiness to show vulnerability, a leader conveys authenticity.

In turn this helps generate trust, which encourages engagement. There is a strong link between employee engagement and company and individual performance.

Exactly what produces high level engagement remains work in progress. Recent studies show around six out of ten global employees feel engaged at work. That still leaves over one third disengaged or hardly engaged at all:

“We are seeing tectonic shifts in the external political, social, and technological environment that tap into and potentially threaten employees’ basic needs for fairness, belonging, trust, advancement, and support .”
Aon report 2017 on employee engagement

Lack of strong social connections often explains widespread low levels of engagement. The reverse is also true. In India for example, high engagement levels partly reflect companies’ commitment to making a social contribution.

To achieve high individual and company performance, the route forward is refreshingly basic:

Show your vulnerability, even if this sometime feel painful.

The ultimate test

Perhaps the final test of a vulnerable leader is a willingness to say “sorry”—and mean it.

Two recent reported CEO apologies rapidly showed how not to do it. First, Barclays’ CEO was caught attempting to discover the identity of a whistleblower. This was against all the rules for protecting whistleblowers. His subsequent apology though, did not land as he’d hoped.

Meanwhile, the regret expressed by the chief of American Airlines for ejecting a passenger due to over booking made matters worse. “Half-hearted” was the least critical epithet used to describe his response to the video of a passenger being dragged kicking and screaming off an American Airline flight.

A genuine apology offered and accepted is one of the most profound interactions of civilized people. It can restore damaged relationships, whether on a small scale, between two people, or between groups of people, even nations. When done well an apology can heal humiliation and generate forgiveness.

Yet few CEOs possess this powerful social skill. Their own career trajectory often means they have limited experience of actually apologising and making it sound meaningful.

Why is it so hard to apologise well? Mainly because it must come from the heart. It’s more about showing you care than in fully satisfying those on the receiving end. Despite being so important, it makes the person or company seem vulnerable and undermines the urge to win, to appear successful and perfect.

A convincing apology requires empathy. Plus the security and strength to admit fault, failure, and weakness. Just saying “we got it wrong” may help but it’s seldom enough. A botched apology–one that’s intended but not delivered, or delivered but not accepted–leaves a leader in a worse position than before.

In some ways saying “sorry” and risking being thought weak, or vulnerable is the easy part. The hardest is both speaking from the heart–that is showing genuine remorse, and then going on to do something about it.

[symple_toggle title=”Sources–click here:” state=”closed”]

K. Williams, The Best Leaders Are Vulnerable, Forbes, JUL 18, 2013 J. Haudan Time to Get Vulnerable: Why The Best Leaders View Vulnerability as a Strength, The Water Cooler E. Seppala, What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable Harvard Business Review Dec, 2014 B. Brown, The power of vulnerability Ted Talk, J. Detert, Workplace courage: when vulnerability signals strength, Darden School of Business, 20th Jan 2017 Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf Steps Down, Walls Street Journal, 12th October 2016 Embracing vulnerability, by D. Reidy, Systems Thinker 2016 K. Rosen, Are You Tough Enough for Vulnerability Based Leadership? Aug 24th 2013 A. Hassan and F. Ahmed, Authentic Leadership, Trust and Work Engagement, International Journal of Human and Social Sciences 6:3 2011
My Bad: Sometimes, Even CEOs Have To Say They’re Sorry, Donna Fenn,



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