Strength in Vulnerability: Leaders Who Dare to Look Inside
Who am I, how did I get here, and where am I headed? These existential questions provide the building blocks of our internal compass. They guide our way, ground us in what really matters, and propel us to live meaningful lives. And it is these types of questions that leaders in our community need to be asking of themselves as they navigate their teams and our institutions through the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. In leadership, self-awareness is a competitive advantage.
Yet, too often, leaders skip this essential step of internal reflection and self-knowledge. Who has the time for it, when there are overflowing inboxes to maintain, back-to-back meetings to attend and immediate fires to put out? Being overstretched may not be the only obstacle getting in the way of leaders carving out time for focused, honest reflection. Going inside may elicit uncomfortable realizations. For some, it may bring up insecurities around needing to own missteps or oversights. For others, it may reveal a need to say no and set boundaries that challenge the model of a leader being everything to everyone. And for others, it may lead to a realization that stepping back and letting go of some control will best serve the organization.
Inertia and fear propel us to walk well-worn paths. Yet the strength to explore new frontiers, to stretch ourselves to face precisely these kinds of realizations, are at the core of an effective leader. An essential quality of an effective leader is the courage to look inside in a deep and honest way. Great leaders understand that we are all human beings first, with predictably irrational tendencies, insecurities and vulnerabilities. They adopt a learning posture with regard to everything they do and everyone around them.
For great leaders, learning starts with themselves. When people take the time to reflect upon and understand their own internal experiences—to “know thyself”—they unearth fertile ground that is the bedrock for learning and growth. The more you know about yourself—what drives you, what triggers you, what strengths you have, what weaknesses you struggle with—the better able you are to communicate those factors to your team and surround yourself with people who can complement your attributes, energy and behavior.
The most effective leaders tolerate a degree of personal vulnerability in the service of leading organizations with integrity, authenticity and accountability. Researcher Brene Brown (Daring Greatly) has found that “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change,” and that “courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” This stance helps leaders create a culture where growth is the goal, not perfection.
The efficacy of this leadership posture is supported by the research. A recent Harvard Business Review article, “Bursting the CEO Bubble,” argues that as you move up the rungs of an organization, there is risk of becoming insulated from the data you actually need to define the future of your organization. When one is perceived as an authoritative, closed person of power, others are reluctant to share unpleasant truths or data that might challenge the leader’s assumptions or the status quo of the work. Indeed, “If you’re a leader, you can put yourself in a good-news cocoon.” By contrast, innovative leaders “deliberately put themselves into situations where they may be unexpectedly wrong, unusually uncomfortable, and uncharacteristically quiet.”
The best leaders operate with humility, understanding that innovation and solutions to complex problems are forged through multiple stakeholders working together, rather than emanating solely from the top. These leaders create a safe environment for sharing unpopular opinions and take feedback seriously. They acknowledge they don’t have all the answers. When leaders dare to lead from humility, from a stance of genuine curiosity, and with a sincere belief in the additive value of multiple perspectives and experiences, it opens up the space for their teams to feel valued and more engaged in their work.
Doing the work of self-awareness and modeling strength in vulnerability are muscles. It helps to put systems in place and add layers of discipline, routine and accountability to support leaders as they exercise these (potentially new) muscles. Here are some suggestions:
- Review your Leadership User Manual once a year and share it with your team. Here's a how-to guide for constructing your manual.
- Prioritize semi-structured ongoing feedback check-in meetings within your organization to show that growth is ongoing, not just a perfunctory annual review. Here is a possible template.
- Experiment with the Stop-Start-Continue model of performance evaluation, which encourages a forward-looking approach to self-reflection. The reflective question being, “What would you like to stop, start, continue doing in the year ahead?” Here's a simple article that describes how this might work.
- Conduct a 360-review process in which direct reports, peer colleagues, board members, etc. provide and receive feedback from one another, supporting the value and efficacy of multidirectional feedback. There is a way to do 360-feedback really well and there is a way that this process can be misused. This resource describes the pros and cons.
- Bring this discipline and practice to the board of directors. Here are some tools for board self-assessment.
Becoming a leader who embraces and models vulnerability is a process. We need to remember to celebrate the small wins and focus on incremental change, while at the same time not forgetting our North Star.
May we all strive to lead with strength in vulnerability.