How Being Vulnerable Can Make You a Stronger Business Leader
The following excerpt is from Jeffrey Hayzlett’s book The Hero Factor: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations and Create Winning Cultures. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Apple Books | IndieBound
“Every entrepreneur is in that fetal position when they’re away from their company too many times. Someone who can rise from that is what a real leader is,” Jerry Henley, CEO of Rubicon Capital, told me when we spoke recently. But I would go one step further: Hero leaders rise from that fetal position to lead and let their teams see it all. That’s vulnerability: opening yourself up to others. Hero companies and leaders find strength in that.
That vulnerability takes courage, because so many leaders have been conditioned to believe that vulnerability is synonymous with weakness. Yet it actually strengthens relationships. I mean, how many genuinely strong personal relationships in business and in life can be built on hiding your flaws, bad news, or problems? How many lasted when you hid a betrayal or a mistake? And how many mistakes were forgiven because you showed genuine vulnerability?
Shea Sealy, president and founder of Advanced Building Care, a maintenance and janitorial company, calls this courage to be vulnerable “meekness,” because it carries a spiritual significance that too many leaders and organizations of faith often forget: “Do we as leaders and executives readily and frequently acknowledge the accomplishments of others, help them to turn their weaknesses into strengths, and instill confidence within them?” he says. “How do we act or react when we’re hurt by the wrongdoings of our employees, clients, and/or competitors? Do we act out of anger and seek revenge, or do we utilize those difficult experiences as both learning and teaching opportunities for ourselves and for others? Jesus Christ demonstrates both his servant and his leadership traits throughout his entire earthly and divine ministries with meekness, ‘disciplined response, strong self-restraint, and unwillingness to exert power for personal benefit.’ I’m fully convinced that it is the greater understanding and development of the attribute of meekness that will truly transform our cultures and ultimately create winning organizations. We will see a dramatic increase in the amount of trustworthy relationships found within and outside our companies, and we will better be prepared to handle the inevitable adversities within our organizations.”
I love the idea of strength through adversity. Resilience is essential to great leadership and organizations, but you can’t show resilience if you don’t have the courage to be transparent about problems and mistakes in front of your people. Catherine Monson, CEO of Fastsigns International, understands this link between courage and vulnerability and how it can prevent future problems: “That courage could be anything from running toward the problem to telling your team where you’ve made a mistake,” she says. “We have a management committee meeting every two weeks where all the middle managers and executives are together, and even as the CEO, I need to gather the courage to share mistakes I’ve made in front of the group. But it has a big impact on everybody, this courage to talk about a problem. It also leads to the courage to be caring when people have problems. The courage to say, ‘I don’t care what the issue is. We’re still going to take care of this employee, whatever it might be.’”
So how are you going to be more vulnerable to strengthen your relationships? Here are some suggestions:
- Stop thinking you know everything, or stop pretending to
- Be willing to be challenged and learn—let your team push you
- Don’t see difference as a challenge to your values
- Be humble enough to admit flaws, not just failures
- Collaborate and be willing to share credit and success
That last one is especially important. No one I know is successful without others. Maybe those people exist. I’m sure they’re lonely, wherever they are. I’m not. I love my team, and I want them to push themselves and push me. In some ways, I’ve found this vulnerability easier as I get older. I’ve had far more successes than failures, so I have more confidence in who I am. I’m also less prone to questioning myself than I used to be, worrying whether I’m good enough or second-guessing my decisions. The farther I’ve gotten in my career, the more I trust myself about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. I’ve also figured out what I want and don’t want to do personally.
But that doesn’t mean I want that professionally for my team and business. I want my team to be entrepreneurial -- to do and see things I don’t to grow the business together. That’s why my team has the blackball. I need to be vulnerable enough to allow my team that influence -- to trust that they might see and feel things I don’t and still make the right call for my business, even if it’s not what I want or would do. And that’s OK. Because I trust them.