The Power of Vulnerability

Over the past several months, I have been engaged in an increasing number of situations where personal egos lose their touchstone to the ultimate demise of the organization, the overall mission, or the actual individual. People pull out their yardsticks, puff up their positions, have all the answers (regardless of the questions) – all with the apparent intention of securing their span of control, their title in the company, their perception by the outside world, or their overall self-importance to the world.

Does it work? In a word: no.

Does anyone else see what is going on? Yes. They may not let on – but they see it. These transparent shenanigans only make the person who is posturing look insecure and weak.

Ironically, what I have also witnessed this past summer is the inherent strength of letting ‘when you don’t have all the answers’ show. Yes, there can be power in vulnerability when leading an organization, negotiating a difficult agreement, or motivating a team.

Recently, in an executive committee meeting of a very large publicly held company in which I was participating, I watched the tense dynamics dissolve right before my eyes.

Here’s what happened:

There were ‘power players’ from all functional areas participating in ‘group critique’ of a recent business scenario gone awry. What I saw was the typical defensive posturing and rationalization of individual behaviors and judgment calls – across the whole gamut. Until, one of the leaders (in fact the most senior executive in the room) completely leveled the conversation. He quite honestly and in a somewhat matter of fact style told a story of how he had made a huge mistake in a prior company, how he had to fall on his sword publicly and admit the error – which was in fact enormous in many levels (the initial judgment call, business conduct, and overall lack of executive manners). He had to publicly apologize to the CEO of a Fortune 25 company, ask forgiveness, and then had to move forward. Well… could have heard a pin drop. Mouths were open, aghast. I am quite certain the reaction was not due to the severity of the prior offense; rather, from the point that the executive was openly repeating it!

What happened from there was nothing short of alchemy around the board room table.

Everyone began sharing stories of their screw-ups, the damage control efforts – and ultimately their Phoenix rising from the ashes. Then, ironically, they each rolled up their sleeves to collectively work on the issues they were facing. It was amazing. Who do you think won the ‘silver star’ in that meeting?

What this reinforced to me is the supreme power in admitting what one doesn’t know, mistakes one has made, and basically just showing one’s vulnerability.

At some point in our lives, we have all been the recipient of a ‘true confession’ from another. Typically, we extend a hand. We empathize. We offer support. A connection, on a different level, is made. A bridge is built between people. We learn from each other.

Why don’t we see more of this in our professional playpens? Are we scared of being found out? Scared of losing our perceived position of strength? Scared our teams will see us as weak or not informed? Scared our boss with think even worse than that?!

Well, my opinion is just the opposite. I believe that living in self-importance or self-anointed superiority shows just a mirage of strength. True strength and power comes when the leader is brave enough to admit their vulnerabilities.

One last story:

A colleague of mine, whose intellect is in fact superior to the average Joe, was having a hard time getting promoted. He was already managing a very large group, quite successfully. He had soared over the profit/loss hurdles, and was running one of the largest, most highly regarded, and most profitable service groups in the company. He was adored by his subordinates. However, he kept getting passed over for promotions. When we delved into this through his 360 assessments and other sources of feedback, we learned that his ‘know it all’ approach and superior attitude was turning off many of his peers; not to mention his superiors. Even if he didn’t have all the answers (which seldom we ever do) – he led people to believe he did – he seldom asked for help. He was not viewed as a team player; and thus, did not represent the leadership qualities the executive team desired.

So, we launched into working on these traits. One approach we used, was rather than to go into meetings with ‘all the answers,’ he entered into his meetings with curiosity, asking questions, soliciting suggestions, input, and conversation around outstanding issues and/or opportunities. It was simply amazing how quickly people’s perceptions changed. He was viewed as open, collaborative, a team builder – and was quickly recognized as someone everyone wanted to work with and/or for. What a turnaround! And, all because he allowed his vulnerabilities to show and he asked for help.

One of my favorite movies – Jerry McGuire has a scene I have referenced for years. Remember Jerry, the sports agent (Tom Cruise) who grows a conscience, promptly gets fired and attempts to turn his life around? He is down on his luck with only one loyal football client left (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Cuba’s character is high on himself (perhaps more than he should be) and they are in the locker room discussing Jerry’s difficulty in getting his client signed due to Cuba’s arrogant attitude, among other issues. Jerry uses the line:

Help me….help you. Help me….help you. Help me….help you.” It was at that moment – in which the two of them had a breakthrough – in their approach together and ultimately in their friendship. Jerry ‘asking for help’ broke the log jam. They both had to work together, learn from each other , with all their warts and vulnerabilities in the open.

So, when we often think we have all the answers – or perhaps we just want everyone to think we do; I am suggesting we lower our guards and simply ask for help. Through this simple approach, we will undoubtedly attract strength from unexpected sources. And while doing so, we will ignite the power of our own vulnerabilities.