Rumbling with Vulnerability
The title of this post, ‘Rumbling with vulnerability’ sounds like it’s from the south of the USA, and that’s because it is (or more accurately South Central).
Many readers will be familiar with the work of Brené Brown and her latest book, Dare to Lead. By her own admission and the way she told it to me last year in Texas as part of a cohort of soon-to-be Certified Dare to Lead Facilitators, a well-meaning person once laughed and said it was funny how a lot of the language you (Brené) use has something to do with rodeos and cattle and well….Texas. Apparently that was a big surprise to Brené. Most people can connect with the language, or at least it’s meaning. Regardless, vulnerability is at the core of leadership so deserves further exploration.
This article will discuss what vulnerability in leadership is and why we should be serious about what it has to offer us as leaders. In Part 1 of this series, it was mentioned that talking about ‘brave leadership’ sounds awkward and feels a little elusive. In Part 2, the focus was on brave leadership and courageous cultures and why it matters. True leadership, by its very nature, requires leaders who are prepared to be vulnerable.
You may recall from parts 1 and 2, that, according to Brené, brave leadership and courageous cultures require four skill sets: (1) Rumbling with Vulnerability; (2) Living into Our Values; (3) BRAVING Trust and (4) Learning to Rise.
What is Vulnerability?
Vulnerability is defined in Dare to Lead as: The emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. A rumble is defined as: a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.
Simply put, vulnerability is about having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome. Being able to rumble with vulnerability is the foundational skill of courage-building. Without this core skill, it is impossible to put the other three skill sets into practice. One of my favourite quotes from the book:
“Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.”
Vulnerability is not about weakness, spilling your guts, fake vulnerability (e.g. asking for an open discussion with the team and then closing down hard questions), or managing the risk or uncertainty out of any situation with an app.
Who Cares About Vulnerability Anyway?
Vulnerability in leadership is still poorly understood, particularly the link to its benefits. As previously mentioned in another post, my own experience in running hundreds of leadership development programs, and what prompted me to write this series, is that many remain sceptical. Perhaps because it won’t be perceived as cool or the right thing to say, but when we scratch the surface to examine people’s core beliefs about vulnerability, many don’t believe, or understand, the link between vulnerability and performance. And even if leaders do buy into the notion that vulnerability is good for business, then many struggle knowing how to be (appropriately) vulnerable.
Adding further weight to creating more humanistic organisations is in a recent article entitled Stop Overengineering People Management (Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct 2020). The authors mount a strong case that scientific management – through the optimisation of labour – is pulling leaders and organisations away from four decades holding a belief in worker empowerment. In this model, labour is treated as a commodity and strives to cut it to a minimum by using automation and software. The potential is that this force will further remove connection, trust and innovation (the authors recommend finding the mix between optimisation and empowerment).
Here are my top five reasons why we should care about vulnerability in business:
While technology has been incredibly valuable, it has also provided unintended disconnection. Dan Schawbel in his book Back to Human, says, “Technology has created the illusion that today’s workers are highly connected to one another when in reality most feel isolated from their colleagues.” Being vulnerable allows us to connect with others that then enables the building of deeper relationships. We know that deeper relationships at work have many benefits including increased job performance, loyalty and overall feelings of wellbeing.
I wrote an article recently that outlined, among other things, why trust is important and how it can drive results. For example, high trust organisations experience 32x greater risk-taking, 11x more innovation, and 6x higher performance (Edelman Trust Barometer). And at a human level, treating each other with respect and forming good relationships feels like the right thing to do. As mentioned earlier in the article, you can’t actually develop high-trust relationships without vulnerability and people feeling comfortable around you. The two fit together and can’t be separated.
We know innovation is good for business, yet struggle to create nimble, agile and innovative cultures. Why? It is clear that creating a culture of innovation is no simple exercise, however, for many, there seems to be a belief that if enough agile processes are implemented, or they teach people how to brainstorm, or teach people how to use right-brain thinking, somehow magically the culture will change for the better.
In a new book by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini entitled, Humanocracy: creating organizations as amazing as the people inside them, the authors believe bureaucracies are ‘innovation-phobic’ and despite the proliferation of ‘innovation hubs’, little progress has been made. Their thesis and assertion, which I wholeheartedly support, is that we need more humanistic workplaces and I know no better way to do this than through being real, showing up and rumbling with vulnerability.
- To Partner is to Lead
If you want to create change in your organisation then you need to be more ‘leader’ than ‘manager’. And in order to create meaningful change, leaders need more partners than followers.
Sure, the notion of ‘follower’ is a convenient and somewhat quaint notion that there is a leader and then there are followers – but the world has moved on and so should you – if you haven’t already. What modern organisations need is a culture of partnership, collaboration and yes, even service. While I acknowledge that most teams have a formal head whose role it is to co-ordinate and guide the activities of team members, an effective leader will also understand the role they play and will be flexible in how that role comes to fruition.
Authority can work okay as a platform when the work is of a technical nature (we know what to do and have the knowledge and skills to do it), but anything other than this type of work requires a different approach (for example in adaptive work where the solution may not be clear or follow a linear, predictable pathway – think almost any change!).
Self-aware leaders will share leadership, partner rather than tell, guide rather than direct. When was the last time you enjoyed ‘following’ someone who just told you what to do? Perhaps never.
In order to partner effectively and not simply rely on the formal authority vested in your role, you must be able to connect, build trust and have meaningful relationships with people. In other words, we need a vulnerability and authenticity in order to partner successfully.
- Building Learning, Growth and Resilience
I remember in the 1990s there was a whole genre of university courses created to teach people how to teach others how to ‘recreate’ because in the future (e.g. the 2000s) the nature of work would have changed so much that we would have oodles of spare time on our hands. With so much spare time, how would we use it productively? We do need to learn how to ‘re-create’ and renew ourselves, but for very different reasons. Life seems to be getting busier and busier in an always-on, connected digital world.
One of our primary tasks as leaders is to grow and develop confident, capable and resilient people. We can only do this if we focus on these things. In my experience, these outcomes are subordinate to task achievement. We busily tick off our ever-expanding task list, often at the expense of growing and developing the very people who are doing the work. If we can be vulnerable and in turn promote those around us to be vulnerable, then we are far more likely to fast-track employee development. The opposite of this is a culture of hiding mistakes, always trying to appear like we’re on top of things, and managing an external persona that we think will make others thinks we’re worthy to be in the roles we occupy. Vulnerability is the key to you creating an amazing learning culture and workforce who will help your company outperform.
Where to From Here?
Creating more humanistic organisations is not an easy undertaking. There is no magic wand or one way.
However what is clear is that it will take a focussed effort on developing leaders who themselves are more vulnerable and real, who can ask hard questions, challenge the status quo, give and receive meaningful feedback, and create meaningful change.
By reducing the personal armour that we carry and step into humanistic, courageous leadership, we will take positive steps forward in creating organisations that are as smart, curious and creativity as their people.