We’d recently worked with a regional CEO on a leadership development initiative. The CEO’s leadership style was very dominant, target oriented and constantly pressurizing others to deliver on outcomes. He later realised that his team couldn’t resonate with his approach but he wasn’t sure how he could initiate the change in his leadership style, without appearing weak or ineffective.
Simon Sinek, the author best known for popularizing the concept of “the golden circle”, once said “There is a difference between vulnerability and telling people everything about yourself. Vulnerability is a feeling. Telling everyone about yourself is just facts and details”
All leaders want to come across as being confident and competent in their jobs. The idea of being publicly vulnerable is an excruciating thought for most. It makes us feel weak. But research also shows that vulnerability can make us better leaders!
After all, we live in a vulnerable world. Yet, every time we make a tough decision about life, work, asking for help, being turned down, we trick ourselves into thinking that we are capable of numbing our senses of vulnerability and imperfections. But as human beings, we cannot selectively switch off certain senses in our neurological wiring, just because we don’t like how it works.
According to Professor Brene Brown, by admitting we’re vulnerable, it does not have to mean we’re weak or submissive. On the contrary, it implies confidence to being your true self, uncertain, flawed and emotional at times. She explained that the root cause of vulnerability is elements of fear and shame, which often obstruct our ability to empathise or truly connect with others. And after many years of research, Brown claims that the cure to vulnerability is an ultimate sense of self-worthiness, and that those who possessed a strong sense of self-worthiness were often courageous about imperfection, compassionate to self and others, and allowed themselves to connect with others authentically.
So if being vulnerable is actually good for leaders, and not something we can physically control, why do we not accept who we are?
As leaders, being vulnerable doesn’t mean you carry a box of Kleenex around and reveal your most private matters. It simply means checking your ego at the door, being comfortable with that you cannot know-it-all or do-it-all and accept that you require help from credible and competent individuals from within your organisation. This necessitates a fundamental shift from status, control and authority, to engaging open conversations, actively listening and empowering others.
So how do leaders become more authentic?
Results from an in-depth study of leadership development revealed that successful leaders emerged from real-world experiences who, through reframing of their life events, understood their ‘true’ self and in doing so, learnt the purpose of their leadership (HBR, 2007). By becoming more self-aware, leaders were also less likely to fall back into old habits of self-preservation and were better at finding ways to cope with stress.
Denial and insecurities are often the greatest barriers that prevent leaders from becoming self-aware. Authentic leaders realize the benefits of receiving constructive feedback, especially the kind that they dread to hear. Interestingly, despite agreeing that authenticity is of great value, we still weren’t able to find any data to demonstrate the willingness of leaders to admit their vulnerability.
By having the courage to open up about their challenges at work, authentic leaders appeal to their colleagues by being credible, humane and empathetic, who in turn are willing to go the extra mile, leading to superior long term results.
Bill George, author of Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, explains “no one can be authentic by trying to imitate someone else”, and that authentic leaders demonstrate passion for their purpose by practising their values consistently whilst leading with their hearts and minds.
So perhaps the best thing an authentic leader can do is to simply know who they really are, embrace the boundaries of their abilities, and understand how they can use their leadership skills to empower and serve others.