The faces begin to file into the training room. There isn’t much chatter between participants as they look for their nametags and corresponding seats. I direct them to the Red Bull and Coffee in the front of the classroom, and a few sleepy eyelids lift up in what I think may be excitement but is probably desperation – a last-ditch attempt to keep from falling asleep before the session even begins. I understand completely. I was in their place five years ago, flying into Ann Arbor, MI from Phoenix, AZ. It was a little rough; two different time zones, active hours flipped with usual downtime, sitting in a classroom when you’re used to being on your feet and last, but not least, sleeping with a complete stranger of a roommate. It doesn’t make for the best rest.
I get it, so I pull the train away from the station and go through my welcome and finally we get to Icebreakers. You know, stand in front of the room and tell me your life story in 30 seconds or less and try to make it entertaining. You don’t want people to think that you are boring. Everyone gets their turn and then finally it’s mine. I start with my name, where I am from, where I went to school, how long I’ve been with the company, the cities I’ve worked and then I round it out with what is my greatest leadership strength: I usually respond, “vulnerability”. I wait for the puzzled looks from those who finished their Red Bull and coffee and then I continue.
Vulnerability, I am not afraid to lay down my sword and let people get close to me. I do not need to be defensive, or offensive, because openness does not scare me and openness is the start of any relationship. Think about it, every meaningful relationship that you have (family not included) started with somebody being vulnerable, somebody putting him or herself out there to get to know another somebody. I know it seems counterintuitive right? But, trust me, people like people who are vulnerable. You like people who are vulnerable. Here’s why:
- They care
- They make you feel comfortable
- They share their failures
- They are COURAGEOUS
- They aren’t trying to impress you
- You don’t sense ulterior motives
- They share information about their histories
- They seem more trustworthy
- You don’t get the sense that they are trying to hide anything
- You don’t have to be cautious around them
- They are welcoming
- They are relatable
Can I get to know you?
We like people who are relatable, don’t we? I do at least, someone who I share commonalities with. Those are the best people and here’s the thing, those are all people. I know; I’m talking crazy again. First, I think vulnerability is a strength and second, I think I have something in common with everybody. What fairytale did they pull this guy out of?
It is my opinion that we are more alike than we are different. Let’s start with the basics; we are all human, most of us have families and everybody in this room works for the same company. I found three common threads already. Next, most are here for a paycheck of some sort, we all have hobbies and we would probably rather be doing that than this? Would you agree?
What are some of your hobbies? What are some of your goals? Who is your favorite NFL team? If that question wasn’t rhetorical I guarantee there would be multiple overlaps. Okay, it’s not rhetorical, yell out your favorite NFL team!
See what I mean. Also, if there are more than two Cowboys fans at the same table, please separate now.
Vulnerability –> Questions –> Dialogue –> BFFs for Life
So, why is vulnerability important in leaders? Would you think less of your leader if they confided in you that they failed miserably before? Let me guess, you would probably think how could you be my leader if you have made, and will make more, mistakes in the future; wouldn’t you? No.
Nobody thinks like that because people follow people who are always real, not people who are always right. We can get over a leader making a mistake if they are able to own up to it, can’t we? Every culture respects honesty and apology. Would you consider owning a mistake being vulnerable? I would, it takes courage to say I was wrong. Especially, if that mistake impacted more than the person who made it, which is usually the case in relationships and business. By owning, admitting and apologizing for their mistake they are essentially putting their head on the chopping block and asking for grace, which more often than not is given.
But the moment we feel like they are sweeping something under the rug and trying to hide their shortcomings, we get suspicious; and if we find out they are intentionally deceiving us, they instantly lose credibility in our eyes, don’t they?
Now ask yourself what does it take for a person to be completely open and honest, even in the face of adversity. I touched on it before – COURAGE. So, intentionally being vulnerable does not make you weak. Intentionally being vulnerable actually, makes you courageous. The key to making vulnerability work in your favor, as a leader, is the intent.
Ultimately, what the intentionally vulnerable leader is striving for with their constituents is trust. Trust is the cement of any foundation. Your trustworthiness is your personal and leadership credit score. If it is high, it is easier to ask of and request services from your team. If it is low, you will find red tape at every corner. Trust is critically important. Below is my interpretation of the Trust Equation, developed by Charles H. Green.
- Credibility – What people know you for (takes time)
- Reliability – How people perceive the quality of what they know you for (takes effort)
- Intimacy – What is your relationship with the person who knows you (takes care)
- Self-Interest – How much of your leadership position is motivated by personal gain versus the interests of the entire team
- The higher your Self-Interest score, the lower your Trust Equation score will be
- Obviously, we all have Self-Interest in everything that we do, but the critical issue is the imbalance. If your team perceives the imbalance is too great they will question your dedication to the team and eventually prioritize their Self-Interest over yours as a leader
- The goal is to decrease your perceived Self-Interest in the eyes of your team
Man in the mirror
Improving your trustworthiness takes intentionally concentrated effort. Improving any perceived gaps involves self-assessment and self-awareness. Self-awareness requires you to be vulnerable with yourself. Can you let your guard down for a moment and try to see yourself how others see you? The King of Pop got it right when he sang that he was staring at the man in the mirror and asking him to change his ways. Intentional vulnerability begins and ends with you. Do you have the courage to lay down your sword, expose your heart and connect with those around you? The people who interact with you want to go to war with you, not against you.
Open heart, Open hands
Intentional vulnerability is courage, it does work and the people around you want to connect with you. They want to trust you as a friend and leader. Lay down your sword. Open your heart and your hands.