If you search the terms, “vulnerable leadership” or “vulnerable leader,” you will find some good articles, such as those here, here, and here. Clearly, they explain, there is a distinction between a weak leader and a vulnerable one, a person who runs away from mistakes and insecurities, and one who is flexible, can learn, and is able to apologize.
Not long ago I produced a paper on defensiveness. I struggled some with the title because the term defensive seemed to have no opposites. If I chose today, “vulnerable” definitely would be it. Here’s the way I am thinking about it:
We can think of the moments when we are most hijacked by our emotions, when we feel most under attack and therefore most vulnerable, as critical choice points — either we defend or we respond. When we are most defensive, we may not like to think of ourselves as choosing at all. Our need to react can feel very much automatic, a product of a hijacked amygdala. Responding is the product of a more conscious intervention in our own defensive system, and can involve some of the steps listed in the diagram above, including slowing down, reflecting rather than blaming, detaching from what is being threatened in us, surrendering to the situation, learning from it, and coming out the other side with a renewed sense of affirmation — for self, others, sometimes even life itself.
The question I ask is why anyone would choose to respond rather than simply defend? Afterall, responding typically involves a much deeper personal journey and often some pain, sometimes a genuine reinvention of self after experiencing some very hard emotions.
Alex Todd makes a very plausible connection between vulnerability and trust with his notion that “Trust is a person’s willingness to accept (and/or increase) their vulnerability by relying on implicit or explicit information.” (See this article by Alex regarding online trust for this definition and its context.) While I may not be using the connections between vulnerability and trust in exactly the same way Alex would, what I like in this definition is the idea of “willingness.” Willingness means we make a choice, and that we can do so knowing that we are vulnerable. We can even make a choice to increase our vulnerability, and I would say that is absolutely the essence of turning from defensive to responsive behaviors.
I think of one of my favorite leadership stories, one I’ve told before of a CEO, a friend of mine, who was given some tough information about his conduct. One of his reports pulled him aside to tell him that something he’d said at a meeting could have sounded racist. The messenger was an African American manager who reported to him. The CEO, instead of defending his remarks, claiming his good intentions or otherwise explaining away this awkward moment, invited more information, and with the manager’s permission later highlighted his messenger behavior at an all staff meeting for the company. The CEO said to everyone that he regarded the manager as a “hero of the company,” who through his acts exemplified exactly the kind of “speaking up” culture the CEO wanted to foster. Then the CEO went on to encourage anyone else with feedback about his behavior to share it with him privately. A number of people came forward later to do so — and he learned a great deal.
What is it, I am asking, that enabled the CEO to respond rather than defend? Why would he “go there,” risking his own self-concept? He chose to be vulnerable, and to increase his vulnerability. He chose to rely on the notoriously subjective perceptions and experiences of the people with whom he worked, risking his own sense of self-esteem. Did he do this from necessity? Did he do this as a reflection of his own self-confidence? I will ask my friend one day, and get his answer, but I suspect that it might not help you or I to know. The question is why we might do the same in any situation where we are inclined to defend instead of listen.
I can only answer for myself that there seems to be some implicit value in the journey. The journey may be through a kind of personal underworld. And the value seems to be one of transformation or the acquisition of wisdom or to otherwise bring something of value out into the world. I have a feeling it’s not about making ourselves or our companies more profitable, at least not directly or immediately. I have a sense that the motive, at least for me, is the experience of the truth and living in a way that’s grounded in the truth. But I would also add that if our own personal defensiveness sets the limit for our own personal growth, for our learning about ourselves, for our capacity to see the need and to reinvent ourselves when it is called for, then our personal defensiveness must serve in an identical way as a painful limit on the entities we say we want to lead.