Vulnerability is a hot topic in the executive leadership world. What does it mean to be vulnerable? Brené Brown teaches that vulnerability is really about courage. In Episode #59 of our Executive Leadership Podcast, Chris and Perry explain how vulnerability makes great leaders and why you should avoid “armoring up.”
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Welcome to the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast, where our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, increase your ability to influence others, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell facilitator and coach, and I’m Chris Goede, Vice President of the John Maxwell Company. Welcome, and thank you for joining. As a reminder, if you’d like to learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership or perhaps even bring a private 5 Levels training to your organization, please visit us at johnmaxwellcompany.com/podcast.
Today’s topic is titled “Leadership Decision Time – Be Vulnerable or Armor Up.” There’s Perry Holley for you. I love the title. Being vulnerable is such a hot topic in the executive leadership world these days. So, tell me more about the title and what you’re thinking about discussing today. I was doing my daily reading and this topic keeps coming up: vulnerability.
I’ve asked a lot of audiences: “When I say vulnerable, what do you think it means?” They always say, “100%, weakness.” It always makes me flinch, but I get it. So, what does it actually mean? Vulnerability actually does not mean being weak. I’ll quote Brené Brown a lot. Her research is fantastic on the topic of vulnerability. Vulnerability is actually about being courageous. She talks about replacing “professional aloofness,” the appearance of having it all together, with authenticity. So, my question is, why do you think that being a vulnerable leader is better for leaders in terms of outcomes?
It really is proven by research that, the more vulnerable you are, the better leader you are. This relates to Level 2 in the 5 Levels of Leadership model. If a leader exhibits the willingness to kind of open up, be vulnerable, and let people know that they’re human, it will no doubt draw people to you. It’s okay for us to admit that we don’t know the answer to a question and to ask for help. You can tell stories about times where you’ve just completely messed up and made some mistakes. One of the things I love about John and his communication style is that it doesn’t matter if he’s sitting here with you one-on-one or if he’s speaking to 50,000 people, he’s self-deprecating. He’s written two books on failure. As a former athlete, you’d hear coaches say, “Hey, the pros put their game pants on one leg at a time just like you.” So, I think, as a leader, when you’re able to get your team to feel that way about you, it draws them to you. It connects them to you. Maybe most important of all, it gives them hope. They think, “If he or she can do that, I know there’s hope for me to become that type of leader as well.” I read one article where the author said that if a leader doesn’t show that they’re vulnerable, they’re a poser. That’s a little tough, but if you decide not to reveal who you are as a human, you decide that you’re going to put on this mask and try to make people think you’re perfect. You kind of are being a poser.
The question is, what can a leader do to include more vulnerability in their leadership? I’m going to go through three simple, great questions that people are going to ask. Number one, can you help me as your leader? Are they going to ask? Can you help me? Number two, do you care about me? Number three, can I trust you? And I think each of these opens the door for you to have conversations and become more vulnerable with your team and your leadership style. You know, when I first saw these three questions, I thought they were too simple, but the further I get in my leadership journey, I’ve realized these questions are simple, but they’re profound.
So, let’s start with number one: “Can you help me?” For you to answer this question with a yes, you have to make it more about your people than it is about you. This says that you are making yourself available, that you are focused on them. Another twist on this one that even adds more vulnerability is when you ask others for help. So many leaders don’t want to admit they don’t have all the answers. The simple act of admitting you don’t have all the answers is vulnerable. Here’s what I would encourage you to say. I’ve had some great leaders in the past do this. They’re like, “You know what? I don’t know that answer, but I’m going to find out for you.” Or “Hey, I don’t know that answer. Would you mind helping me find out about that?”
The second question is “Do you care about me?” This seems rich with opportunities to express vulnerability here. We’ve heard John say, “Hey, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them.” So, when something happens to your team members that kind of shakes you, it’s okay to let them know that. I know some leaders that don’t want to be emotional with their team, but you should let them know that your heart’s still beating. You don’t need to be stoic. And be empathetic versus sympathetic. From a vulnerability standpoint, everybody can kind of extend a little sympathy to people going through situations, but can you be empathetic with your team in those times? If you can, it’ll show great vulnerability. Occasionally, people are hurting. They’re going through something in their personal life or they’ve had a setback in their business life. A friend of mine had a very severe loss in their family, and he told me he was so disappointed with the response he got from his leadership team. People kind of pulled away from him. He said he didn’t think they knew what to do. I thought, come on! This is where you, as a leader, should take off your mask and admit, “I don’t know what to say. I do not know what you’re feeling like, but I’m going to sit with you and I’m going to be with you and I’m not going to avoid you. I’m going to come to you and I’m just going to tell you, I’m sorry.” Sometimes that’s all you can do.
This reminds me of another story about a leader inside a privately-held organization. One of their executive team members lost a parent unexpectedly. Their resided out of state, so he had to take some time off. The day of the funeral, the founder and the owner of the organization chartered a plane and brought numerous people to the funeral. He didn’t know about it until he walked in and saw everybody there with their company shirts on. He said, “You have no idea how much that has impacted me.” The leader didn’t do this to get additional buy-in from that team member at all. I promise you; I know him. But that team member will never forget that moment.
By the way, showing you care doesn’t have to be at that scale. It could be. But it’s just about taking that mask off, being real. Saying, “I’m in it with you.” Empathy, as we mentioned.
So, the third question that followers are asking about their leaders is “Can I trust you?” If you don’t have trust, the other two questions don’t really matter so much. Where do you see trust and vulnerability intersecting? I think leaders that act perfect, like they have all the answers, like they never make a mistake, they’re going to get your distrust. John likes to say, “Your team already knows you make mistakes and that you are not perfect. They just want you to know it.” There are some things that I just have no desire to do, that I’m just bad at. So, sometimes I’ll be like, “Hey team, I need some help doing this.” Tammy ,who serves our entire team so well, will always say, “You finally just decided that’s not what you need to be doing! We all realized that a long time ago.” This will build greater trust with your team. As you’re growing and learning, be vulnerable and share what you’re learning. Take opportunities, whether it’s one-on-one or in a team meeting to say, “Let me just tell you where I’m growing.” Sharing how you’re learning goes a long way in building the trust with your team.
So, being vulnerable at work really means, very simply, to just take your armor off, put aside pretenses, check your ego. When you think about it like that, you can really understand what Brené Brown’s talking about. It’s about being courageous enough to be you, to be comfortable with who you are. It will make you a better leader because people are drawn to authenticity.
Oftentimes we’ll get asked, since we’re in the people business, to tell them the greatest profile or the greatest value set of a leader we’ve ever been around. We’ve seen great leaders from different profiles, with different values, and it always comes down to being who you are, authentically.
Great stuff. Thank you. Just another reminder for our listeners: if you’d like to know more about the 5 Levels or learn more about this podcast, you can go to johnmaxwellcompany.com/podcast. You can leave a question for us there. We always enjoy hearing from you, and we’re always grateful that you join us here. This has been the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast.
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