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 ( 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.


When Feedback goes Terribly Wrong

So here’s a question for you. If you give feedback to a friend or colleague, and they disagree with your perspective or don’t take it well, is the fault for the communication breakdown the fault of the feedback giver or the feedback receiver? On the one hand, many of us don’t want to hear negative feedback about ourselves and immediately go on the defensive when somebody gives it to us, even if it’s in our best interest. On the other hand, it is possible to give somebody feedback who neither agrees nor is particularly open to the feedback we’re giving.

I have had this experience during the last few weeks and the personal research shows one thing. I’m not particularly good at receiving feedback I don’t agree with and I am not good at all receiving feedback that is couched in anything that sounds like, “somebody said to me,” or “other people see it this way.” My kneejerk reaction is to respond as if the feedback giver in this case is simply not owning up to their own opinion. That, plus the fact that I can’t clarify or respond to an unnamed source, pushes a button for me that is difficult to unpush. I then become fairly unreasonable and instead of simply saying, “I see, thanks” I tend to go somewhere beyond annoyed and respond in a way that is neither particularly professional nor personally rewarding.

I honestly take responsibility for this, but it makes me think that those of us who coach and teach about giving feedback tend to always take the point of view that if the receiver of feedback is defensive, it is their problem because they aren’t open-minded enough to listen to our well-intended comment. But as I’ve experienced this a couple of times in the last few weeks, I think there is a principle we tend to ignore: The giver of feedback, rather a manager, a coworker, or a friend, has no more or less of a right to give the feedback than the receiver has to ignore it or be offended by it. The balance of responsibility goes both ways and, as I’ve preached for years, intent has very little to do with it. I don’t know your intent, I only know your behavior, and if you intended to be helpful but I took it as offensive, we have both started down a miscommunication path. If I intend to explain myself and you take it as being petty and defensive, the same thing is true.

The problem is that we communicate ourselves into the mess which means we somehow have to communicate ourselves out of it. And we tend to continue the communication about the content of the interaction rather than about the communication breakdown. So here are a few suggestions when you find yourself in this predicament.

  1. Stop the conversation about the content long enough to deal with the conversation about the communication. Falling into, “yes, but you were wrong” kinds of comments are still about the content and are going to simply exacerbate the problem.
  2. Accept that there are at least two parties involved, neither of which probably handled the situation perfectly. That means that the odds are highly stacked that you are likely to also be part of the problem, no matter which of the parties you are.
  3. Figure out what it was about the delivery or the reception that went wrong. In my case it is almost always that I don’t know when to stop talking and just let things go. In other cases it might be that the timing was off, or the phrasing was too personal. Accept that, if the other person perceives it that way, then it actually WAS that way.
  4. Stop being righteous. As I said, my problem is that I tend not to stop talking when I should stop talking. That’s because I know I’m “right,” and I am determined to make sure you know that I’m “right” and eventually concede. Feedback shouldn’t be about winning and losing, although once it feels personal, it can go there easily. Ask yourself with each comment whether or not the process is being helped. And if not…stop talking.
  5. The final one is tough, at least for me. Own your own hurt feelings and let it go. If you were giving the feedback with the best interest of the other person in mind, and they lash out at you, remember that this was always a possibility when you gave the feedback in the first place and that they are likely responding to their own hurt feelings in the process. If you feel angry at the beginning of the process, remember that the person has taken a chance in giving you the feedback in the first place. A little benefit-of-the-doubt goes a long way in both directions.

There’s an old saying about the First Rule of Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. There are times when the best intentions place us in an awkward, no-win situation. When you’re there, stop digging. Figure out which is most important…that you make your point or that your relationship stays whole. If it is the latter, then you might have to drop the issue regardless of how wrong you think the feedback is or how hard you were trying to help. Once the relationship is broken, it is a much harder task to repair. And in most cases, the content of what is being discussed just simply isn’t worth letting the relationship deteriorate.