Healthy vulnerability is essential for sustainable leaders and organizations.
When we develop as leaders, we typically have to un-learn much of what got us to where we are in the first place, and replace it with a way of being that at least initially strikes us as uncomfortable and disconcerting. However, if we can hold that discomfort for what it is, we are likely to be sustainable for the long term.
How we get here
We spend most of our formative years in settings where we are rewarded for what we know, what we can do with confidence, and whom we can persuade. From those things, we are then rewarded again for being able to solve problems based on that knowledge, confidence, and persuasion.
Our first jobs, typically, take the same viewpoint: the manager hires us based on those things. We have a core body of knowledge that allows us to build from there, or to be able to train to do tasks that apply that knowledge over and over again.
This model works relatively well as long as we are working in a 1-to-1 relationship with our boss, receiving orders and executing on them. It starts to show strain when we move to a team setting, shows fault lines in a cross-disciplinary team setting, and crumbles once we begin to expect people to lead.
Why does this system crumble?
True leadership is the ability to see the potential in other people and systems and develop and empower that potential. (See Brown, 2018, p. 4.) This means that helping others solve their problems in a way that they can then solve them for themselves is the highest praise for a true leader.
The challenge is that most of us leaders are afraid to actually lead – because we are actually truly afraid. We are afraid that the empowerment of others and the development of their potential and the potential of the systems in which they operate, will cause us harm: we will no longer be needed, we will be surpassed, we will be left behind, we will be somehow harmed. Those fears are real. Many situations have validated these fears in many of us. We have seen those things in the past when others get rewarded for surpassing us in knowledge (even when that knowledge has come through violation of boundaries), confidence (even if it is just bravado), and persuasion (even if it is just manipulation).
Part of the reason for this, of course, is that the skill set that gets us hired is not the skill set that helps us lead. If we are hired for what we know and our ability to solve a problem for someone based in that knowledge; and if leadership is about potential and empowerment, the skills – and the mindset – involved in leadership is very different from our hired skill set and body of knowledge.
Why is this so different?
Potential and empowerment have a different risk profile than our basic skill set.
- They require creativity, release, and experimentation.
- They involve the unknown.
- They involve us seeing what isn’t there and believing we are right enough to give it a shot.
- They require that we hold two opposing viewpoints at the same time: what is, and what could be. If we can’t see what will be and what currently is at the same time, we will either get stuck where we are and not move forward, or we will disconnect from reality and move into magical thinking.
- Leadership requires dealing with these polarities and this unknown.
In these cases, our rewards may not come in the same way we expect. Sometimes doing the right thing gets mocked and derided. Making a decision that has to be made will likely make someone angry. Something you see as a major accomplishment may go unremarked and unrecognized by others. Leadership isn’t going to give you straight A’s.
What do sustainable organizations do differently?
Leaders and organizations focused on sustainability, knowing that they are in an infinite game, realize that in order to get the best out of their people and the systems they manage, they must form a different reward system. What gets rewarded, what gets penalized, what is taboo, what is the norm – these things together are the corporate culture. The reward system of sustainable companies begins with healthy vulnerability.
Healthy vulnerability doesn’t mean a company of oversharers. It doesn’t mean an emotionally or physically abusive culture where the beatings continue until morale improves.
It means that it’s ok to speak about the fears that exist. It’s ok to put the narrative in our head out on the table. It’s ok to say “I don’t know.” But the only way people will do that is if organizations make it safe to do so.
Doing something new is inherently risky – and so is sharing an idea that is not yet fully formed. A culture that allows ideas to develop from their first embryonic form into their full maturity requires places of expectation and protection that give things that are not yet viable – but will be – a chance to grow. To protect these not-yet-viable endeavors, the culture has to value, support, and reward vulnerability.
What are the results of this work?
Organizations cultivate this healthy vulnerability by instilling it into culture and rewarding wise risks. They discover that they much more nimble in the face of change. They are more capable of managing complexity. They are more creative. They are able to measure risk more accurately – neither dithering nor jumping to conclusions. The staff find it more rewarding to work there and are more inclined to put their best selves into their work. This not only benefits the company but the workers who feel more valued and confident.
But not all of us are in those kinds of organizations.
What do we do?
If we really want to be leaders, especially in organizations that are trending toward toxic, we do four things.
- We find ways to buffer those who work with us and for us from the more negative aspects of our company culture. No company culture is perfect, and each has habits that work against its better nature.
- We set better boundaries in the small things: not everything is a huge battlefield. We can say yes or no to small things that give us confidence for the greater things down the road.
- We intentionally look for places to give voice to the unspoken emotion in the space and speak it.
- We work to develop a sense of self that goes beyond our job and leans into our vocation: how we are wired.
When we do those things, we begin to address the culture and transform it, even when we aren’t at the top.
So tell me: how do you and your organization handle vulnerability?