Leadership Requires Vulnerability

I most confess that I’ve had some difficulty getting clear on what I’ve wanted to communicate in this post. To be completely honest, I am in the midst of one of the most challenging chapters of my life and focusing on writing has been incredibly difficult. However, I continue to experience the joy of working with leaders who are committed to the work of becoming the best they can be professionally and personally. That said, they would not express explicitly that they are committed to being the best, rather, these leaders demonstrate an unmistakable quality of humility and self-awareness which once examined, provides the path to authentic and effective leadership which requires vulnerability.

Vulnerability requires massive doses of emotional intelligence. (I’ll explore two specific components of EQ later) I don’t say this to intimidate the reader, but rather to indicate that the reason leaders rarely demonstrate authentic vulnerability, is because most of us shy away, dare I say, bolt from experiences that are difficult. Of all the challenges leaders face, none is more pervasive yet hidden than fear of failure. In a recent study conducted by Harvard Business School of several thousand leaders, the most striking comment is in line with my theme of vulnerability; “Leadership today,” Javier Pladevall, CEO of Volkswagen Audi Retail in Spain, told us, “is about unlearning management and relearning being human.”

Leadership effectiveness can be measured in several ways, but for this post, I’d like to bring attention to the power of vulnerability and its direct impact on leadership effectiveness. The power of leadership lies in our abilities to form personal and meaningful bonds with the people whom we lead. This is truer now than ever, as millennials are becoming the majority population in most companies. Millennials are not satisfied with only a paycheck, bonus, and benefits.They want meaning, happiness, and connectedness, too. This is where a leaders emotional intelligence is demonstrated — specifically, a leaders emotional self-awareness:

    • Emotional self-awareness includes: recognizing one’s emotions and their effects
    • Accurate self-assessment: knowing one’s strengths and limits
    • Self-confidence: a strong sense of one’s self-worth and capabilities

When a leader has a good understanding of how they fare in these three areas, they are much more likely to connect meaningfully with those whom they lead. The absence of self-awareness creates a disconnect which is unfortunately more common than should be. The problem is about 70% of leaders rate themselves as inspiring and motivating — much in the same way as we all rate ourselves as great drivers. But this stands in stark contrast to how employees perceive their leaders. A survey published by Forbes found that 65% of employees would forego a pay raise if it meant seeing their leader fired, and a 2016 Gallup engagement survey found that 82% of employees see their leaders as fundamentally uninspiring.

Recently a client, a highly esteemed and respected individual, pulled me a side and asked if he could share some thoughts with me. This person went on to communicate their areas of insecurities about their own leadership, their shortcomings in some job specific areas, and a request for my support in navigating this particular phase of their leadership journey. This person in that moment demonstrated an authentic and particularly vulnerable self-awareness, a clear and accurate self-assessment, and the self-confidence to distinguish the good from the areas of needed improvement.

Leaders are effective when they have good ‘grip’ on their inner emotional life. Vulnerable leaders have demonstrated skill in the area of what EQ practitioners call self-regulation or self-management. A direct result of good self-management is the ability demonstrate compassion to those you lead. As Rasmus Hougaard, author of The Mind of the Leader – How to Lead Yourself, Your People and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results states, “If you have ever had a leader that was compassionate, you will know what it feels like. The person has your back. When it comes to leadership, nothing beats compassion. It is a universal language that is understood by anyone, anywhere.” Compassionate leaders have learned the skill of self-regulation. To understand self-regulation, leaders must understand and learn these five skills:

    • Self-control: Keeping disruptive emotions and impulses in check
    • Trustworthiness: Maintaining standards of honesty and integrity
    • Conscientiousness: Taking responsibility for personal performance
    • Adaptability: Flexibility in handling change
    • Innovation: Being comfortable with novel ideas, approaches, and new information

Five years ago this month, I chose to leave my leadership role to venture out into the world of the entrepreneur. It took a great deal of vulnerability to step away from a career that many thought was respectable. I however, could not deny the real and serious disappointment with much of the leadership I had experienced working for corporations for 22 years. This became the motivation to begin coaching and developing leaders and organizations who recognize that authentic and vulnerable leadership enables leaders to form meaningful bonds with the people they lead. To quote a client, “…coaching has shown me to get beyond just managing people and actually be the authentic leader my folks need me to be.”20170603_161619000_iOS