Much has been written about Richard Branson, including his visionary leadership and approach, his continuous journey into the extreme, and his ability to turn seemingly impossible dreams into realities. I've been a fan for a long time.
Recently, he wrote about the concept of vulnerability starting by simply acknowledging what many of us admit to be true:
"Many people view vulnerability as a weakness..."
He continued by saying that in actuality, he sees that it can be a great strength and cites two compelling reasons:
1. Vulnerability builds trust
Quite simply, he talks about the notion that we as people aren't perfect and that showing emotions and asking for help are exactly the things that allow people to build trust in you.
2. Showing emotions and passion makes it easy for others to support, follow, and believe in you
He speaks of Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela crying or speaking with tears in their eyes and the incredible impact this has on how people identify with their causes and follow them.
What about the rest of us who aren't Tutu or Mandela?
In my work, I often am asked to work with leaders who are struggling. For a lot of different reasons, things aren't going well. When I begin my work with them, one of the things I look for is how authentically vulnerable they are with their teams.
Are they willing to own problems in a way that points the finger at something they need to improve?
Are they willing to "fall on the sword" openly when necessary?
Or do they deflect so as not to show signs of weakness or cracks in their leadership armor?
Two false beliefs many leaders have about vulnerability in the workplace
You certainly can't blame any of us for deflecting. In lots of companies these days, the pressure to succeed, do it with less, and do it faster, is always there.
Many mid-level managers and leaders feel that pressure from all sides. And if things start going sideways, most of the leaders I work with who are in trouble share one common problem: They have a very hard time being vulnerable.
What is holding them back? Here are two common misconceptions I find:
1. Vulnerability damages my credibility with my people
Earlier in my career, I carried the belief that my people wanted me to have all of the answers, all of the knowledge, and all of the experience. Then I realized the impossibility of that. Many of us still feel like this is what is expected, though.
I recently coached a Manager of a department who came into the department without a huge amount of background in the work. He had gotten himself in trouble by not openly acknowledging it with his staff.
Instead, he had tried to go the other way by focusing heavily on making changes in the one or two areas where he had knowledge and experience instead of openly asking his staff to help him get smarter about all of the other things that happened in the department.
The result was a staff that ironically didn't give him credibility about much of anything; credibility he would have gotten had he just been vulnerable with them up front about what he didn't know and asked them for help.
2. The higher ups will think I don't know how to do my job
It is certainly easy to come to the conclusion that admitting a mistake or showing vulnerability would be perceived by the higher ups as lack of competence, especially in cultures that are hard driving and heavily results oriented.
Interestingly, though, when I speak with many top leaders, they are quick to tell you both how much they know and how much they don't know.
In one of my last jobs before launching my own business, I was a young VP and had my first meeting with the CEO. He was a seasoned veteran. He asked me lots of questions about what my plans were and my strategies. I wanted to have great answers that didn't show any vulnerability at all.
Then he said something that really got me thinking about vulnerability and perceptions of competence. He said:
"I found that as I got higher up and even into CEO positions, I had more questions than I had answers for. It's OK not to know. People like to help you find the answers together."
Being vulnerable certainly feels like a big risk, but this might be a risk we can all take, even if we're not as comfortable with risk as Richard Branson.