The Art of Leadership Vulnerability


Patrick Lencioni stresses the point that today’s leaders need to be aware of the risks of being invulnerable. He refers to this clearly in The Five Temptations of a CEO and in Getting Naked. So what is it to be invulnerable? This can be described as the distancing of the leader from the team being led by focusing on STATUS, wanting to be POPULAR, the need for POWER AND CONTROL, lack of TRUST of the team members creating a fear that a subordinate will take their job. This distancing creates an attitude of looking down on the team instead of being part of the team.
Let’s take a look at what vulnerability would look like. For those who consider themselves strong leaders this may sound a little scary or even weak, but the vulnerable leader focuses on results over status. Instead of trying to be popular the leader is focused on accountability. There is a focus on clarity over certainty or the need to be right. Instead of trying to keep things in perfect harmony there is recognition of the need for healthy conflict. There is an atmosphere of trust that allows the team members to be heard with an open mind without fearing what the conversation might be. This all begs the question of how.
How does a leader learn to be vulnerable?
What behaviors would be observed in the vulnerable leader?
What kind of atmosphere would this create in the workplace?
If you are the leader, a good first step might be to get to know who you are and who your team players are through one-to-one meetings and assessments to get to know the person’s outside interests and even some of their struggles. This step alone can begin to create an atmosphere of trust and recognition of the differences among the players.
The leader must let go of the fear of being wrong. An effective leader is able to admit when a mistake or poor decision has been made. The leader makes no assumptions but rather solicits input from the team with interest and curiosity. There are no bad ideas, only ones that when considered carefully are not the best at the moment. The vulnerable leader can accept criticism from peers and the team members and process it for the truth even when it is uncomfortable.
The vulnerable leaders can let go of the need for power and control. This leader is able to get on the level of the team members and really hear them. He listens attentively and considered their input carefully. The leader realizes that allowing for all to be heard may create some healthy conflict which can flush out the down sides of the path allowing for the clarity to come forth. When things are clear and accepted by everyone on the team there is trust and buy-in. This leader also knows the team members well enough to know their hidden talents, those talents they do not use in the everyday work. He is appropriately concerned with their lives external to the organization.
Letting go of the need for control allows for getting the ego out of the way. The leader recognizes that not all of the best ideas will come from him. He is willing to share the power choosing results and accountability over the ego trip of being popular. Indeed, this leader is probably more popular with the team because they feel trusted and heard and know that their voice counts.
Where does this leader start? With the next deep breath. Remember, true leadership is not for the faint of heart. Love it!

The Employee Engagement Myth

HR leader Cathy Missildine had an interesting post on her blog regarding the ambiguity of the buzzwords “employee engagement”. (Here’s the article.)  Her guest bloggers really dig into the credibility issue created with the focus on an area the majority of the HR community have not been able to affect in 13 years.

In our experience working with organizations across multiple continents, the majority of the time what gets called low engagement is really a lack of clarity.  Every individual in the organization should be able to answer three simple questions.

  1. What are we doing?
  2. Why are we doing it?
  3. What are my responsibilities?

Over the next several weeks, we’ll dig deeper into some other simple concepts organizations that consistently excel have learned to well.

BTW – Cirrus Business Group is coming to Biz1190AM in Atlanta in August.  We’ll keep you posted on our first air date.

It Brings Down Planes and Organizations

The statement that culture eats strategy for lunch (or breakfast – depending on your source), has been attributed to the late, great Peter Drucker.

In Good to Great, Collins develops the analogy of an organizational fly wheel.  He writes about the amount of focus, time and effort that goes into getting the organizational fly wheel turning.  Now imagine that fly wheel as the culture of your organization.

How does this bring down planes?

In a cockpit, much coordination and communication is required.  The captain is dependent upon a first officer, cabin crew, and sometimes a navigator to make sure the plane reaches its intended destination safely.  If you have read any of the other Cirrus Business Group posts, you know how much emphasis we place on creating professional trust in the culture of an organization.  An airplane cockpit is an environment dependent upon trust – trust in the crew, the mechanics, the airframe, and the air traffic controllers.  It is impossible for the captain to see everything that is going on from all the necessary perspectives at any given time. To get the plane safely to the destination (the strategy) there must be a culture of trust and an appreciation for pointing out errors or new information among the flight crew and supporting parties.  In other words, although the captain has the ultimate say, the rest of the crew better feel that it is their duty to put the lives of the passengers above titles and egos and speak up.  The captain must be willing and grateful to receive this information.  The more dynamic the environment, the better this team must perform.

It will likely be some time (and we may never know) whether or not the high power distance culture of Korea caused the recent Asiana flight 214 crash, but let’s assume that the flight crew was not incompetent.  When I heard the news report, my mind immediate went back to the observations Malcolm Gladwell made about the 1997 Korean Air flight 801 crash.  In high power distance cultures, there is a general feeling that the person with authority or in control must be right regardless of your own perception or understanding because he or she is in charge.  It is considered a high insult to question authority in front of others.  Even questioning authority in private can have long-term ramifications.  So, subordinates keep quiet.  Even if it means the approach glide slope is too steep or will miss the end of the runway.

How does this bring down organizations?

You may already be ahead of me here because of my brilliant airplane analogy  but in the spirit of clarity here we go.  Most “leaders” take pride in saying that “they hire people smarter than themselves”.  However, these same leaders often create a culture that discourages those very people from raising difficult questions or pointing out inconvenient facts.

All of this undermines trust.

There is a reason there is more than one person in a cockpit and the support of air traffic control from the ground.  It takes a well functioning team to get an airplane to its destination safely.  Your organization is no different.

Have you been encouraging a high power-distance culture by undermining organizational trust?

When was the last time you had someone on your management team disagree with you…to your face?  How long has it been since you had a healthy, heated debate in a meeting?  What was your reaction?  If it was anything other than gratitude for the passion and debate, you are creating a high power distance culture.

I am not encouraging insubordination.  I am encouraging you to promote honest, passionate debate around issues, strategy, new team member hires, and the other things that have the potential to crash an organization.

If you have been guilty of undermining trust in your organization, you need to call your team together, acknowledge the issue, and ask their forgiveness.  You also need to ask them to hold you accountable going forward.

While they will likely receive the acknowledgement and conversation well, don’t expect the culture of trust to change in your organization overnight.  Culture has inertia.  However, if you will persist and your team sees consistent effort and reinforcement on your part, it can be done.

You hired them for their knowledge and insight.  Without a culture that reinforces trust, you are wasting your money.