Control vs. Vulnerability: What is the next step-change in leadership and culture?

leadership vulnerability

Leaders who have learned to be vulnerable have a stronger impact on people and business results. What is a vulnerable leader? It is a leader who has accepted that she does not have all the answers – and more importantly, that she must not have all the answers all the time, writes

I like to ask my clients what their leaders are missing the most in their development. What cultural attribute would make their world completely different while at the same time delivering business results surpassing anything they have ever dreamed of. Their answer: Agility, speed, accountability, innovation and customer focus. My answer: Vulnerability.

Many of today’s senior managers and leaders have grown-up in a world where you needed to be excellent technically, manage people well, know how to respond to customers, fix problems fast and have all the answers. With an increased focus on results, on achieving profit and quick growth, managers and leaders have seen their personal accountability increase. Their response has been to dial-up control.  Control is a protection mechanism. It reduces the fear of failure, fear of making a mistake, and fear of not knowing – because to be seen as successful (please note the use of “be seen as”), you were often required to have all the answers. What this has created in many businesses is a culture of fear, command and control, perfectionism, and hierarchy. The outcomes of this kind of culture is disempowerment, lack of trust, complexity and in the end, a negative impact on customer outcomes and business results.

Trust or vulnerability, what comes first? Most of the clients I ask this question to answer that they need an environment of trust to start being vulnerable. Research actually shows that it is vulnerability that creates trust.

Today’s organisations need their managers and their leaders to challenge the status quo, come up with ideas, respond quickly to a changing environment, and drive stronger results than ever. Control is the antithesis of those attributes. What helps people to be successful in a VUCA world is not control anymore, but vulnerability. Leaders who have learned to be vulnerable have a stronger impact on people and business results. What is a vulnerable leader? It is a leader who has accepted that she does not have all the answers – and more importantly, that she must not have all the answers all the time. She hasn’t necessarily let go of her fears of failing or not looking good, but she has dialed up her courage to be able to stand in front of others and say, “I don’t know”, “I made a mistake”, “I can’t do it alone”, or, “I need your help.” This shift enables her to embrace the power that resides in her team but that she was unable to fully leverage. An organisation with leaders who have built up the courage to be vulnerable in front of others is an organisation where fears are kept at bay, where there trust and openness are strong drivers, and where people speak up when they see something that could impact business results. It is an organisation that is more agile, faster, and is able to pivot in alignment with the market.

Trust or vulnerability, what comes first? Most of the clients I ask this question to answer that they need an environment of trust to start being vulnerable. Research actually shows that it is vulnerability that creates trust. A leader who can be vulnerable in front of her people increases trust tenfold. Vulnerability precedes trust. In other words, to create trust, be vulnerable. Unfortunately, vulnerability is often mistaken for weakness. Nothing is further from the truth. Vulnerability is a strength, because you need courage to be open. Effective leaders know when to be vulnerable, and when not to. They build a strong culture of trust and empowerment. Vulnerability is fast becoming the one thing that leaders need to improve for becoming their best self at work – and at home.

Control is a protection mechanism. It reduces the fear of failure, fear of making a mistake, and fear of not knowing – because to be seen as successful (please note the use of “be seen as”), you were often required to have all the answers.

For HR teams, this is a significant shift in thinking and people practices. Walking the Talk’s research has shown that the most important blocking factor in businesses becoming more agile is leaders and senior managers letting go of control. Courage and the ability to be vulnerable need to be added as a key criterion to recruitment practices and performance management discussions. It needs to feature in culture goals and discussions, and link back to business results. HR business partners need to coach the managers and leaders they work with to become more open, to let go of their fears, and to reflect on the need to show some vulnerability. As for HR executives, they need to lead by example because culture shift starts at the top.

The move from command and control to more agile, empowered and trusting organisations is something that many businesses have embarked on. They won’t be successful without a shift towards more personal vulnerability. Organisations that have understood this are already a step ahead, and their people live better lives.

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