Reflections on Leadership: Vulnerable Leaders
One of the recurring themes of Patrick Lencioni’s leadership books is what he calls “vulnerability based trust”. His writings are presented in a story format which he calls fables – but seem more like narrative case studies with the names changed to protect the innocent. In The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team he identifies the primary reason for the absence of trust on a team as the unwillingness of team members to be open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses. He contends that it is impossible to build trust without vulnerability.
In another one of his books, Lencioni expands the virtue of being vulnerable to those outside of your immediate team members as the way to build trust in the people you hope to engage as customers. This is a bit more risky, as the people outside of your team may be more inclined to take advantage of you and may not always have your best interests at heart. The title of the book (Getting Naked) was chosen to identify ho w uncomfortable being vulnerable can be in this environment. The title was well chosen. I have to admit that I was a bit uncomfortable even placing an order for a book with this title.
His latest book, The Ideal Team Player, focuses in part on how to identify current and future team members who willingly embrace vulnerability based trust through personal and organizational humility. He combines this virtue with two others - being hungry and smart, and provides techniques for finding people who possess these virtues.
So what is this thing we call vulnerability? Isn’t vulnerability about weakness? Is weakness a virtue we look for in an effective leader? Is being vulnerable really a good idea in a world full of people who are seeking to exploit any perceived weakness for their own advantage? Is Lencioni right about vulnerability being an essential element in building trust, or is this an idea that sounds good in theory but has little practical application?
There are a number of definitions of vulnerability, but there are three definitions that resonate with me:
- Capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt
- Open to moral attack, criticism, temptation
- Open to assault and difficult to defend.
None of these definitions sound positive or uplifting and make vulnerability seem like something that should be avoided at all costs.
The concept of vulnerability has a long history. One of the oldest and most vivid examples is taken from Homer’s Iliad, which was written in the 8th century BC. Achilles was a Greek hero of the Trojan War and the central character and greatest warrior of Homer’s Iliad. According to the story, when Achilles was born his mother wanted to make him immortal and thus, dipped him in the river Styx. However, she did not realize that his heel, by which she held him, was not touched by the waters, and so that was the only part of his body that remained mortal. Later in the story a poisoned arrow struck Achilles’ heel, the only vulnerable part of his body, and he subsequently died. Over 2000 years later, every medical person or sports enthusiast can identify the location of the Achilles tendon, which is susceptible to injury among professional athletes. Today the expression “Achilles heel” is used to describe the heroic figure with a potentially fatal weakness.
Almost every superhero since that time has had some sort of vulnerability. Superman (the superhero of my youth) was powerless in the presence of kryptonite. If the stories of heroes being vulnerable are about risk of death and destruction, why would a person who aspires to leadership seek to become vulnerable?
I think there are several reasons that vulnerability is a key element of leadership behavior, both from a theoretical and practical standpoint:
- It is important to admit what we all know to be true - that every human being is vulnerable at some level. People of faith know that while we are all imperfect and inclined to do wrong, we are loved by God who offers each one grace and forgiveness.
- Those who are not insightful enough to recognize their own imperfections are not intelligent or wise enough to be effective leaders. Those who can recognize their imperfections but cannot acknowledge their shortcomings to others are not perceived to be honest enough to be trusted with the mantle of leadership.
- It takes an emotionally secure person to be vulnerable enough to admit to being wrong and still remain confident enough to effectively lead others. From this perspective vulnerability and weakness is not the same thing.
- Confident leaders who admit to being imperfect and vulnerable are inherently trusted and admired. • A shared sense of vulnerability narrows the distance between people, creating a bond that fosters teamwork.
- The lens of vulnerability is an essential perspective in building a balanced and high performing team. Leaders who recognize and publicly acknowledge their own shortcomings more frequently surround themselves with team members who have complimentary skills. Conversely, leaders who are blind to their own vulnerability are more likely to surround themselves with people who share the same strengths and weaknesses.
- The connection between acknowledged vulnerability and humility is absolute. From a team building perspective, humility breeds respect.
- The connection between perceived invulnerability and arrogance is equally strong. For a variety of reasons, arrogance is the Achilles heel of leadership.
- Vulnerability is the prerequisite to humility and other behaviors that are essential to establish a level of trust that every organization needs to succeed.
The paradox of vulnerability and weakness was addressed by Brené Brown, the noted researcher and social scientist. When asked the question, “Do you think society supports people who are viewed as more vulnerable? Can we come off as weak if we show imperfections?” She responded, “The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.” Brown acknowledges that embracing vulnerability is not easy. She talks candidly about her difficult journey toward vulnerability in her widely viewed 2010 TED Talk titled “The Power of Vulnerability - The Human Connection – the Ability to Empathize, Belong, and Love.”
The truth is that the same vulnerability we identify as strength in someone we admire can become our strength as a leader when we have the courage to be open with one another about our mistakes and weaknesses. Lencioni is right - being vulnerable builds trust on a team – not because it is a sign of weakness, but because it is a sign of authenticity and strength.
About Steve Proctor
As the now-retired CEO of Presbyterian Senior Living, Mr. Proctor was employed by PSL from 1971 - 2019. He is a Registered Nurse and Licensed Nursing Home Administrator with a BS degree in business administration from Elizabethtown College. He also holds a master’s degree in gerontology from the University of North Texas. Before becoming CEO, Mr. Proctor was Chief Operating Officer for 16 years. In addition, he has served as a Board member and is a Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Non-Profit Homes for the Aging (“PANPHA”). In November of 1995, the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (“AAHSA”), now known as LeadingAge, recognized Mr. Proctor’s proven leadership and accomplishments by electing him to serve as Chair of its national board of directors. He served as Chair-elect in 1996 and 1997, as Chair in 1998 and 1999, and as past-Chair in 2000 and 2001. He has also served as chair of the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
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