The Leadership Paradox of Vulnerability

Great leaders are strong. Great leaders are confident. Great leaders have a vision and know how to get there. Great leaders are stable and consistent.

Oh, and Great leaders are human. Great leaders have doubts. Great leaders take risks. Great leaders have emotion. In short, Great leaders are vulnerable.

Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and the author of “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” In this book she simplifies vulnerability as a combination of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. As she puts it, “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen.”

How is it even possible that a leader can be a Great leader without showing up and being seen? Many try to do this through posturing and internalizing any doubts or concerns. They believe that, by hiding their vulnerability they avoid the risk of letting their followers know they don’t have all the answers. These leaders are generally horrified that, if those who depend on them see them as being less than 100% certain, they will begin to doubt their leader.

Here’s the thing. Your followers know you aren’t perfect and that you don’t have all of the answers. In fact, they think you’re full of it when you try to act like you do. To us, vulnerability feels like weakness, but to our followers, vulnerability represents courage and guts. To us, perfectionism feels like a promise to deliver all things at all times and avoid any possible embarrassment of mistakes or misjudgments. To our followers, perfectionism seems like arrogance and a mask that keeps us from connecting.

I’m not asking you this week to go into your work or leadership context and break down in a huddled quivering mass. I’m simply asking you to be honest with your people. Let them know that you understand their concerns because they are also yours. And let them know that together, you will help lead them through it. That, in my humble opinion, is the sign of a Great leader.

The Power of Affirmation

I was thinking about a friend over the weekend and mulling over what it is that makes her so special. Then it occurred to me that she is one of the most affirming individuals that I’ve ever met. Not cheesy, useless “you can do it” affirming, but very specific and focused and natural. At the same time, I was grading graduate student final papers and, as many of us do, getting more distracted by the amount of feedback that I needed to give rather than focusing on the specific feedback each student needed to receive. What that starts to look like then is a version of, “If I didn’t criticize you about it, it was good.”

In 1982, Ken Blanchard published “The One Minute Manager,” which since then has sold over 13 million copies (kenblanchard.com). If you haven’t read this book (seriously?) you really need to! In his book, Dr. Blanchard extorts managers to “Catch People Doing Something Right” and then, without formality and tons of structure, give them feedback about the value of what they’re doing and you’re appreciation of their effort.

Unfortunately, many managers that I have worked with in my consulting business as well as students in my graduate classes, have adopted the theory that giving positive feedback on elements of one’s job that they are expected to do anyway will create an “entitlement” culture. Actually, many are afraid that once they start they might have to continue. As one manager told me recently, “I barely have time to correct the wrong behaviors. I certainly don’t have time to say something about the right ones.”

This is a real shame and a way to lose good people over time. It is certainly a mindset that undermines employee morale and engagement no differently than a lack of positive interaction lays waste to any personal relationship. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group, and reported in Forbes Magazine, analyzed over 200,000 responses from around the world finding that the number one factor in employee happiness was “Appreciation for my work.”

And by the way, that concern over how much time affirmation of a person actually takes? Not an issue. First, like I suggested before, read Ken Blanchard’s book “The One Minute Manager,” or another of his great books, “Catch People Doing Something Right: Ken Blanchard on Empowerment.” Second, don’t overcomplicate it. Identify something specific that a co-worker, employee or boss (yes, boss) has done and praise it for that specific thing. Say thank you, even when people are delivering what they are expected to deliver. Identify a single thing that they are doing very well in their work and let them know you notice.

There are many other ways to do simple affirmations without sounding like a self-help guru. The biggest trick…think about your people and your relationships and give some intentional reflection to what it is about each of them that you admire. Don’t make stuff up…be sincere. You will find that for such a small investment, the returns can be tremendous.

One Phrase Worth Rethinking

I recently had a discussion with a young lady that was exasperated at an ongoing conflict she was having with a co-worker. The conflict started on a separate project several months ago and now they were working on something new together and all he could do was put her down and make her feel stupid and insignificant. Since in this case they had no choice but to work together, she was exhausted and highly stressed at the idea of having to go through this with him again. I asked her if she had spoken to him directly about her concerns in light of this new project. Her response was a very common phrase:

“I shouldn’t have to.”

Her reasoning was that they had spoken before and that she had made herself crystal clear yet already he was starting to give her “those looks” again that indicated how useless he thought she was. Since they had talked about this before, she felt he ought to know how that these looks and the tone of voice he used were condescending and insulting. She was emotionally exhausted having to be on his team again.

You can see there is a lot for our young lady to get her head around about her own accountability, but look at that last sentence again. “He ought to know how to act in this situation.”

I have seen many people (myself included) brought to a complete halt by the “I shouldn’t have to” mentality an interpersonal conflict situation. “I shouldn’t have to” assumes (a) “rightness” on the side of the person saying it and (b) some kind of justice that exists between us and all of those with whom we have relationships. In fact, when it comes to conflict situations, “I shouldn’t have to apologize” is one of the most common walls erected to resolution. It means, “I am not to blame, she is, therefore it is she who needs to apologize.”

The problem is that “I shouldn’t have to” is often entirely irrelevant. The real issue is whether the potential outcome of DOING it would outweigh the protection of pride involved in NOT DOING it. And that’s what “I shouldn’t have to” is often about. It is my own ego interpreting the situation as if taking whatever action this is will put me in a subordinate position. And that position becomes more important than the actual resolution of the issue.

Of course there are times where the situation has become extreme enough that you have to put your foot down and say enough is enough. This is an example of ownership of your role in the situation and taking a stand. Unfortunately, “I shouldn’t have to” is a phrase of inaction…it sometimes represents why we are not going to do something in the specific situation that might, in reality, make a difference.

Before deciding that I just don’t understand the jerks you work with (and I don’t…but they aren’t that different from jerks others work with…trust me), ask yourself a couple of questions before sticking to your “shouldn’t have to” plea.

  1. What are the consequences of action versus inaction? Is it possible that doing what you “shouldn’t have to do” might break the stalemate?
  2. Is it possible that you are now trying to make a point rather than trying to solve the problem?
  3. Is it possible that the other party doesn’t realize that you are waiting for them to do something? How would they know?
  4. Is it possible that your stand is based on a lack of confidence rather than real justification?

And by the way, don’t let me sound too righteous here as this is a trap I fall into as frequently as anybody. I often have to ask myself who I’m helping and whether or not it is really worth it. The big question for me is often, “Is this really a principle I’m standing on or is it pettier than that?” If it’s pettier, it might be worth doing it, even if you shouldn’t have to.

Culture Creates Lasting Value

I recently heard from my old friend and past boss Klaus Entenmann, Chairman of the Board of Daimler Financial Services. He sent me and a couple of my past colleagues an email to let us know the large-scale culture change we started in 2005 has become part of the lifestyle of the organization. Nine years after we had our first meeting to determine what would energize the culture, the company has incorporated those values and principles as its own. This culture is delivering results as proven by the fact that Daimler Financial Services is the first German company to make it into the top 25 Great Places to Work and are continuing year over year to produce strong and impressive business results.

This is the challenge of culture change. Often leaders are focused on an immediate need and as a result, read some new leadership book and then buy into the idea that changing the culture will fix that immediate need. In most cases, it doesn’t work that way. Culture is established over a long period of time. The rules of the new culture have to be established and then tested over and over again. If we say that we are now customer-focused, we have to have those hard moments when customer-focus is difficult. When we say we will only accept integrity, we have to have those moments where costly decisions are made in the name of protecting integrity. This is how we determine if the new value is real

With a short-term focus, these “values” end up being seen for what they are…great ideas, aspirational goals, and transitory. Leaders who are playing the long game and truly trying to change the way their organization lives and breathes understand this. They actually look for those opportunities to show their followers they mean exactly what they say and they are willing not only to invest in this new direction but to pay the price of their commitment.

The other lesson to gain from this is that culture change is enabled from the top. Sometimes it starts there, sometimes it starts at the grassroots level, but in either case, if the leadership of the organization does not commit, it just isn’t going to happen. In the case of Daimler Financial, a huge investment was made in bringing the senior leadership along into this new culture. For some, it was no longer a good fit and they moved on to other things. For others, it was exactly what they had envisioned when they first decided they wanted to become leaders.

Culture is hard to understand and to wrap your arms around. It’s that white space between decisions, it’s a belief system and it’s a set of rules that are unspoken but understood. Culture requires faith in your own leadership and in the abilities of your followers. And rather than a management function, creating the environment where a strong culture can evolve is pure leadership. To be a small part of a significant and lasting culture change is a unique experience but well worth the effort.

Does your culture create value? We would love to hear about it so please share!

Make your SMART goals STRONG

First, have a definite, clear practical ideal; a goal, an objective. Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends; wisdom, money, materials, and methods. Third, adjust all your means to that end.   Aristotle

Many of us, when setting goals, have been exposed to the popular SMART acronym as a guide for our goal-setting. In the standard approach, goals are defined as “good” if they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound.

The more I work with leaders, or teams establishing strategic or tactical plans, the more I believe that while these elements of a goal are ok, they may not cover everything. For example, while a goal may be specific, it is not uncommon for it to still be difficult to understand.  We can write a “specific” goal that still has too many elements, or is couched in a language that is hard for our team to grasp.  Relevant is a wonderful characteristic as well, but is a broad concept to work with. The question may still linger, “relevant in what way?”

I fully recognize that suggesting a different acronym to follow is just this side of heresy, but I’m going to give it a go anyway. If SMART goals are working for you, then please keep using them. But perhaps you want to consider not just making your goals smart, but instead making them STRONG.

Simple: For a goal to be useful, it has to be understandable. By “simple” I don’t mean it has to be elementary, but it needs to be focused on a single activity and outcome and phrased in a way that is clear to those who see it. Goals that have multiple parts are hard to understand and are difficult to deliver since the employee is unsure of what part of the goal is most important. Goals that are loaded with jargon, or specialized language, are difficult to access. A simple goal for one person may be an overly complicated goal for another person so this is a relative term based on the individual and the task at hand.

Timely: For a goal to be useful it also has to be relevant to the situation at the moment. Each goal should have an importance that is immediate. If you truly want me to make this goal a priority, I have to see how it plays a role in our success right now. This doesn’t mean that all goals are short-term goals, but they need to have a connection to the current moment. If the goal is set for 24 months from now, I need to understand why it is identified as a goal today

Realistic:  For a goal to have its desired effect on performance, it has to be seen by the recipient of the goal as somehow possible to achieve. Unrealistic goals create demoralized troops. This is a point of negotiation. If you see the goal as realistic and your follower does not, you need to take the time to explain your thinking in a way that they can see the same reality you do. This does not mean the goal has to be easy…just possible. Our goals should stretch us and push us to achieve more than we think possible at times. But if I don’t see any reality between the current situation and the one you want with the goal, I will likely not engage.

Objective:  For goals to be strong, they must be viewed as unbiased and objectively measurable. One of the definitions of “objective” is “having a real existence.” If you want me to attempt to achieve a goal, it has to be termed in a way that it is real. “Making people happy” is not an objective goal. “Improving customer satisfaction” is if I can define what it looks like. If I can define what the goal looks like when achieved, then I have (or can have) a measure attached to the goal.

For some people, this specific element just sounds like another way of saying “measurable” in the standard SMART approach. While an objective goal IS measurable, and should have measures associated with it, I would argue that the focus here is on the concrete nature of the goal, not the measure itself. Telling me that a goal is to achieve a 5% increase in profitability doesn’t tell me anything about the action, it only tells me the expected outcome. The measure may technically BE a goal, but it doesn’t have any essence until that is turned into additional goals that get me there

Necessary: Useless goals are the bane of high-performance. For a follower to be motivated to achieve a goal he or she has to see the value of the goal being pursued. Goals need to be provided in a context of understanding so that employees understand not only the specifics of the goal, but also the goal’s importance in the bigger picture. The necessity of the goal can be a strong performance driver, especially for employees who are personally committed to the overall success of the department or organization.

Grand: Goals need to be aspirational. They need to represent performance that requires ingenuity and persistence. They need to be challenging. Remember that I suggested they are realistic, which means they are not SO grand that they are unattainable. But realistic does not mean that it’s a piece-of-cake…it just means that it is doable. Grand goals are goals that stretch us to grow in ways that mediocre goals do not. Grand goals can be exciting, if they are agreed upon by both the leader and the follower.

Whether SMART or STRONG or some combination of the two, goals that are imposed on people tend to be less successful than those that are established with people. A goal-setting session should be a dialogue…the actual establishment of the goal should be the outcome of the dialogue. “Gifting” your employees with their goals creates confusion about what you mean and what the priorities are. But a goal-setting session where each individual has the opportunity to share in the crafting of the objective can be inspirational in itself.

 

Effective Leadership Presentations

One of the key success factors for leaders at all levels is the ability to communicate to others. We spend a lot of time in this blog talking about interpersonal elements of communication and leadership, but the fact remains that it is the rare leader that can avoid making some kind of group presentation. In fact, by definition, leaders have to communicate to groups of people at a time. There has been a lot of study and writing on the act of oral presentation so it would seem that there’s probably not much more we need to learn, eh? As leaders we know we need to “Tell ’em what we’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em and then tell ’em what we told ’em.” At least that’s the conventional wisdom. The problem of course is that being redundant is not only sometimes very boring it is also not a guarantee that our message will have any impact at all.

I generally have an immediate suspicion of conventional wisdom anyway. Typically it became conventional wisdom over a long period of time and is so general as to be not of much use. At the very least, conventional wisdom tends to be…well…conventional. In other words, average is not what we’re after here so perhaps we need to try a little harder. Recent evidence in brain research of participants listening to speakers gives us some ideas as to how we might make presentations to our followers more powerful. Here are three ideas for example that are not likely to be intuitive or in your basic speech workshop:

1. Focus on multiple processing: Very often leaders approach communication to groups of people as information dumps. A few charts, a bunch of numbers, and that’s about it. Then they wonder why nobody seems to remember what they said. Research however indicates that the more diversity in the presentation, not just with information but with our senses, the more likely we are to retain the information. Most speakers stick to audio and visual, but are there some ways you can bring your message alive by activity within the group. Can you pass out an object or have them engage in an activity to illustrate your point. The more ways they have to experience the information the more likely they are to retain it.

2. Be “level” with the audience: Of course we have been trained to do this through a story or joke or whatever else we throw into the introduction of the speech, but connecting with the audience is really about being a credible and trustworthy source. Be real and authentic. Avoid acting out the power position. For example, if these are employees within your company or department do you really need a formal introduction? Do your assistants really need to be visible to everybody all of the time? Come down the hierarchy for a while and really speak with your folks.

3. Tie into existing knowledge: While every presentation should have a unique component (otherwise, why are you doing it?) participants can make meaning of your discussion more easily if it is related to stuff they already know. Whether it is a continuation of an earlier presentation, connected to current events, or even product related, it is helpful to overtly tie your new information to previously understood content. The more you can help the audience make the connection, the less cognitive effort it takes for them to figure it out on their own. One thing stands out above all others when it comes to making presentations with impact. If you are not considering your audience in the process of creating your speech, you will not be as effective as you could be.

Speaking is all about the audience. If you have others who are creating your speech, make sure that they are doing it from the perspective of the receiver. No matter how powerful a leader you are, if you stand there and tell us what you think is important, without considering what is important to us and how we can best understand the information, your presentations will fall short every time.