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Difficult Conversations Can Jump Start Company Innovation

The autocratic leader is tolerated when survival is at stake but that style won't build a company over the long haul.
Difficult Conversations Can Jump Start Company Innovation
Image credit: Tom Werner | Getty Images
Guest Writer
CEO of Tribe Builder Media
5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Harley-Davidson was in trouble in the early eighties. The booming popularity of imported Japanese motorcycles cut Harley’s market share from 75 percent to a flickering 25 percent. To protect the homegrown brand’s viability, CEO Vaughn Beals adopted an authoritarian stance modeled after the fearsomely efficient managers at his Japanese competitors.

Beals slashed his workforce by 40 percent, overhauled the manufacturing process, and doubled down on promotional marketing tactics to win back market share and save the HOG. 

Autocratic or authoritarian leadership is sometimes necessary, especially in warlike situations where rapid, decisive action is required under pressure. In other contexts, though, this kind of leadership can kill morale, breed resentment, and handicap success by precluding group input.

In capitalism, the typical workplace is autocratic. We’re conditioned to admire the "enlightened dictator" archetype, like the late Steve Jobs was often perceived to be. But autocratic or authoritarian leadership discourages creative, out-of-the-box thinking and tends to inhibit or overlook the expertise of subordinates. Worst of all, it makes everyone feel bad. And yes, feelings matter. Even to the bottom line.

An alternative to authoritarian leadership: Vulnerability.

What authoritarian leadership is missing is vulnerability. In Dare to Lead, author Brené Brown says vulnerable leadership inspires courage. She connects courage so fundamentally with vulnerability that she says the two are inseparable. From my own experience, I have to agree.

At a speaking engagement on a military base, Brown asked special forces for “an example of courage that you’ve seen or witnessed in your life, or that you’ve done yourself, that didn’t require uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure,” the latter ingredients being her recipe for vulnerability. She says there was silence, until one soldier replied, “Three tours, ma’am. There is no courage without vulnerability.”

Related: What Is Leadership? The Navy SEAL Who Killed Osama Bin Laden Answers.

Brown told CBS This Morning, “Courage is contagious. We can teach it, we can learn it, we can measure it. And we have to create cultures where being armored all the time is not rewarded behavior.”

What vulnerable leadership can do for your company.

Vulnerable leadership requires the ability to sit with uncomfortable or awkward moments without tapping out, deflecting, or otherwise going on the defensive. And the payoff is worth it. When employees feel trust and safety, they find the courage to venture new ideas.

“We’ve chosen to curate a team of talented people we respect and admire and to cultivate a workplace where we can be open with each other and have each others’ backs,” says Dan Gaul, cofounder and CTO of Digital Trends, the nation’s largest and fastest growing independently owned tech publisher.

This quarter has seen a sweep of media industry layoffs, mostly at publishers owned by huge parent companies like Verizon. That kind of cutthroat leadership saves dollars now, but research shows it breeds distrust in the long run. Digital Trends has chosen another way.

Related: The 7 Worst Mistakes Companies Make When Laying Off Employees

“You can’t put a price on trust,” says Gaul. “It automatically incubates better work and sustains morale.” He calls the short and long term payoff of vulnerability “both measurable and substantial.” While other media companies are slashing their workforces, Digital Trends is on a streak of hiring new talent.

Being present in tough conversations takes courage.

New studies show that corny team building exercises don’t work, and worse, they can humiliate and further alienate your staff. Instead of having an employee fall off a chair into team members’ arms, try simply being present with them for authentic conversations, as you would for a spouse, friend or parent.

“Leading with vulnerability is uniquely important when it’s time to make tough decisions,” explains CEO Ian Bell. “Last year, in the process of scaling, we experienced growing pains that led to unusual employee turnover as we evaluated what was working, and what was not. What we learned is that acknowledging the situation head-on with transparency and compassion helped to put our staff at ease, and it allowed us to learn from our mistakes and grow with our team.”

Related: How MailChimp Cured Its Growing Pains 

This kind of openness takes courage, because it exposes you to things you may not want to hear. That leads to the kind of internal dissonance Brené Brown calls “rumbling.” But if you’re skilled enough to rumble through the discomfort, it sets an example that can spread throughout the workplace. As Brown notes, it’s contagious to be so courageous. And that courage manifests as creativity and innovation.

Don’t be a wartime CEO if you don’t have to.

A healthy company is made of happy staff members at all levels. And while it’s true that extreme situations, like Harley-Davidson’s in the early 1980s, call for decisive authoritarian action, that’s not sustainable. Take off the armor and dare to be vulnerable with your team. The rewards will be long lasting.

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