09th March 2015

How Vulnerable should I be as a Leader?

With the increased focus on emotional intelligence, leaders have been encouraged to show their vulnerable side.  But can showing vulnerability actually work against you?  Co-founder of Accelerating Executive Presence (AEP) Harold Hillman shares his view:

We used to be selected and promoted largely on the basis of ‘what you know,’ which reflected a heavy emphasis on intellectual smarts in the business world.  Then in 1995, Daniel Goleman wrote the best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence, and the world of management hasn’t been the same since.  Goleman popularised the concept of emotional intelligence [“EI”], which told leaders that they would now have to not only focus on what you know, but also pay equal attention to how you connect with other people, a reality that became crystal clear after the war for talent started to intensify in the mid-to-late 90s.

Research on how to keep employees satisfied has shown a shift, particularly since the advent of Generations X and Y, where employees increasingly want to work for managers who no longer have to pretend to be perfect, who are willing to acknowledge mistakes and, most importantly, ask for the team’s help to solve problems.  This is called ‘vulnerability’that feeling you get when you are no longer in total control and have to rely on others to help you.  Many managers do okay with it, but some are still trying to figure out how ‘imperfect’ they need to be before it begins to feel weird, or even back-fire on them.

Since starting our Accelerating Executive Presence program seven years ago, we’ve been teaching vulnerability as key component to authentic and effective leadership.  We believe that a leader’s ability to connect honestly and ‘imperfectly’ with people is one of the critical outcomes that define outstanding executive success.

When it’s working at its best, vulnerability may look like this:

  • Everything doesn’t need to be perfect – the 80% rule is a good one to apply
  • If you want your team to put more ‘skin in the game’ at work, ask them for their opinions and be willing to listen and adjust to suggestions that really do make better sense
  • Resist the temptation to micro-manage someone who may learn heaps more if you just let them struggle a bit
  • Ask your team, or your peers, to help you think through something you’re struggling with
  • Put yourself on a learning curve where you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone, perhaps to learn a new skill or new way of thinking about the business
  • Ask more questions and give fewer answers, as your inquiry can be often be a more effective way to develop your team

Can you take vulnerability too far, to the point where it backfires?  You certainly can.  Displayed well, vulnerability can increase people’s confidence in you because it makes you easier to relate to – it’s really hard for employees to connect with a perfect boss.  But be careful not to take imperfection to a point where people begin to question your capability, or your confidence – both of which are essential ingredients to a leader’s success.

Some examples where overplaying vulnerability may back-fire:

  • Continually asking for advice and input will likely cause concerns that you can’t take a position and are overly-consultative
  • Vulnerability is about allowing yourself and others to take some risks, but use the 80% rule on things that don’t put the business or people at risk, such as a decision to relax safety standards
  • Don’t overplay being popular, only to park the tough calls.  Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you don’t deal with poor performance
  • Avoid taking too many ‘temperature checks’ with your team – in the interest of constantly trying to show that you want everyone engaged, people can become cynical, or even begin to play you
  • There should be an equivalent acronym to TMI (too much information) that applies to vulnerability – perhaps TMV (too much vulnerability).  People can connect better with a manager who is not perfect because it makes it easier for them to talk about things they’re struggling with.  But in the interest of making yourself imperfect, don’t go overboard.  TMV can back-fire if people think you’ve lost the plot!

The bottom line is – it’s hard to ignore all the positives that come with managers who pay attention to those things that we call emotional intelligence, including being able to display vulnerability.  Perhaps the best rule of thumb is to not over-think it to the point where you’re trying to be somebody you’re not.  You can always do things to improve how you connect with others at work, but do that in a way that complements, rather than overshadows, the authentic you.

The Accelerating Executive Presence program that Glen Petersen and I designed and regularly facilitate is a great way to experience (and believe it or not) enjoy being vulnerable.  Getting used to this state is a great way to build resilience and get more comfortable with yourself and your ability to change.  Visit our program’s website to learn more: www.acceleratingep.com

Dr Harold Hillman

Co-founder of Accelerating Executive Presence and Author,” The Impostor Syndrome”.


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