As the cruel Roman leader Caligula famously said, "I don't care if they respect me so long as they fear me." For decades, CEOs have followed this blueprint and ruled with an iron fist to bring their vision to life by any means necessary.
But gone are the days of pretending to have it all figured out and leading with fear. Today's leader must be vulnerable, authentic, and transparent in order to connect and inspire. Leadership today should mean a mutually beneficial relationship between employer and employee.
Within the aforementioned outdated social constructs, as a society, we would all have two selves: a work self and a "real-life" self. Showing any sign of emotion or weakness at work was seen as taboo.
As co-founder and CEO of the advertising agency Mekanism, and best-selling author of The Soulful Art of Persuasion, Jason Harris is an expert on the power of vulnerability and transparency as a means to connect with others, in both your personal life and as a business leader.
Leading with vulnerability
The most successful companies in the world allow for collaboration both inside and outside of the organization. Companies like Starbucks and Netflix are known for prioritizing employee mental health and fostering an environment where employees feel safe. And according to Harris, it all stems from vulnerable, open-hearted leadership.
Here are four ways Jason Harris leads with vulnerability:
1. Schedule your mental health
For the past two years, leaders have been shouldering a big emotional burden: helping teams recover from the pandemic, buoying the declining mental health of their employees, and being sensitive to people's anxieties. This takes a toll on even the best leaders. Harris has learned firsthand that you can't effectively lead others without taking care of your own mental health first.
If it's not scheduled, busy leaders won't get to it. Harris suggests making your own mental health a priority and getting therapy on the calendar. If therapy feels like a big step, Harris suggests group therapy once a week, as it helps leaders flex their emotional muscles, discuss issues, and be more empathetic.
2. Practice what you preach
Harris suggests encouraging employees to bring their full selves to work by practicing what you preach as a company. A good way to do this, he says, is by defining your company values and communicating them frequently to ensure they remain a priority. Two of Mekanism's values are "collaboration" and "weirdness" (i.e., encouraging employees to embrace what makes them unique); you can't have either without employees feeling safe to be themselves. Once you align with your own company values and what you stand for, you can communicate these things companywide. In addition, Harris suggests hiring people by these values.
3. Be aware of your own blind spots
Harris believes that when you uncover your blind spots and actively work on them, you become more conscious of your own strengths and opportunity areas. Some common examples of blind spots include: being afraid to ask for help, avoiding difficult conversations, blaming others and refusing responsibility, or not honoring other people's time. Two great ways that Harris suggests for acknowledging and confronting your blind spots are:
- Take time for self-reflection. End each day by jotting down some situations that you wish you had handled differently or some questions you have for yourself. A few minutes of self-reflection is key to making behavioral changes. And talk about your blind spots openly with others. They will then feel safe to examine their own.
- Embrace challenges. If you know that you often avoid difficult conversations, push yourself to move outside your comfort zone and make it a priority to have these conversations in an authentic and clear way.
4. Share more to create safety
Being vulnerable allows us to find common ground, which creates a sense of safety. When we feel seen and known for who we are, we feel less isolated and more a part of a community. When employees feel comfortable being who they truly are, that is when collaboration can begin. Harris suggests encouraging sharing by creating a culture of open and transparent communication. That might mean scheduling companywide meetings, instituting a feedback system, or scheduling more one-on-ones with your employees.
Harris believes that vulnerability allows us to connect and embrace who we truly are, and by doing that, we build confidence in ourselves and our own decision-making skills--which is one of the most important traits of a strong leader.