The Art of Being Vulnerable: From Emperor Hirohito to the CEOs of Today
To continue to grow, we need to continuously learn and innovate, not cling to past success and avoid any chance of failure
A well-known Chinese proverb says: “It is as impossible to find a perfect man as it is to find 100 percent pure gold” (人无完人，金无足赤 rén wú wán rén, jīn wú zú chì). However, an image of an authoritative, all-knowing leader who never makes mistakes has taken root in the Eastern business culture. Maintaining this mask of perfection takes a lot of effort that could be spent more productively. Working for a “perfect manager” makes employees feel flawed, ask fewer questions and hide their mistakes, causing business performance to suffer.
Take your Mask Off
The “humanity declaration” by Japanese emperor Hirohito spoke to the earthly nature of an emperor's power and his reign, set rapid economic growth in motion, and restored the international image of Japan. Multi-millionaire Marcus Lemonis encourages managers to open up by sharing his own deeply personal feelings with the wider public. Starbucks' Howard Sсhultz admits that revealing your weaknesses is as challenging as it is necessary: “The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability...When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.”
So why do wise leaders value vulnerability so much, and how does it help in business?
Recently, students at SKOLKOVO Business School met to discuss HBR's research about which leadership style – nice or tough – is most effective. The majority of attendees were in agreement that a balance of both is the best approach. While being hard often comes naturally to leaders, flexibility is a learned skill. This is why many informal conversations between top managers, officials and entrepreneurs focus on stories unrelated to business about becoming more human and alive, and the importance of admitting to and talking through inner fears and doubts.
Leaders fall into the trap of success more often than others: our professional heroism and achievements can create a feeling of never-ending noteworthy successes. But, this is a double-edged sword. Having achieved success, leaders prioritise maintaining the status quo, avoiding risk and uncertainty – the very things that drive business development.
It’s impossible to stay on top forever: that's true of the economy, business and even human development. To continue to grow, we need to continuously learn and innovate, not cling to past success and avoid any chance of failure.
Embrace your Fears and Failures
Tolerance of failure is a leadership quality actively cultivated in the West; yet, thus far underappreciated in the East. Similarly to leaders in China, Russian leaders are often primarily motivated by a fear of “losing face” – a concept that includes both the fear of failure and the fear of being rejected due to failure. This results in a vicious cycle – we stop asking questions and voicing doubts out of fear of revealing our own incompetence, which leads to making even more mistakes.
For a long time, I tried to become a man capable of concealing his fears, but at some point I realised that being afraid is normal. I made a simple decision for myself – admit to my mistakes, evaluate the facts, and do everything in my power to rectify the mistake.
But what are the potential consequences of doubting one's own competence? Scientists have found that having a rigid certainty of being right is negatively correlated with competence.
Don't be afraid to appear incompetent by asking yet another question, but beware of making mistakes as a result of overconfidence.
Try the “You know nothing” Approach
Modesty and the ability to be self-deprecating are characteristics rarely found on a list of leadership traits. However, the ability to admit your own limitations and imperfections provides further incentive to continue learning and developing, regardless of one’s position in a hierarchy.
The business culture in many countries maintains that leaders seemingly have nothing left to learn. They are there to teach others. Yet, there are examples from professional sports to big business proving that success is largely determined by the ability to remain a student. Longtime American football coach Bill Walsh used to tell his teams that “the only cure for success disease is adopting an underdog mentality.” And, at Nestle, reverse mentorship is an opportunity for managers to learn from their subordinates and peers.
Identify your Vulnerability Circle
Your employees are unlikely to share ideas, give a piece of advice or reach out to solve pressing issues, if you as the manager are unrelatable. But what does it really mean to “become more human”? It’s not about being overly informal or making highly personal things public; rather, it’s about being able to maintain clear boundaries and understand to whom, when and why you need to reveal your human side.
For example, I identified for myself a network of colleagues and friends with whom I can discuss effectively any situation or issue. They are the people I reach out to resolve internal conflicts. I know this group accepts me unconditionally and evaluates my actions — not me personally. This gives them freedom to give constructive criticism, and gives me more space to hear and accept these criticisms.
Open up to get Room to Manoeuvre
Why should we spend time talking about weaknesses if such conversations make us so imperfect, insecure and ordinary? How does this bring us closer to success?
Brené Brown, University of Houston professor and author of “The Gifts of Imperfection” said, “vulnerability is the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity…The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing; it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”
Being human helps establish strong connections with other people and creates an atmosphere of trust in which bright ideas and appropriate decisions are fostered. It is true that you can't force corporate culture to be more human; you will have to be a pioneer and lead by example.
It would be a mistake to become hypersensitive, develop unwarranted fears, or start sharing all your problems with others as a means of becoming a better manager. It doesn’t help to take principles to the extreme. Being a leader and human at the same time means coming down from your pedestal and listening to others. This makes it easier to learn from one's failures and to be able to teach that art to others.
Andrei Sharonov is the president of the SKOLKOVO Business School in Russia. Prior to this, he served as Deputy Mayor in the Moscow Government for economic policy. Mr Sharonov was awarded the Aristos prize for “Independent Director” in 2009, the national award “Director of the Year – 2009” for “Independent Director” and the international award “Person of the Year – 2012” for “Business Reputation”.