Why Humility and Vulnerability Are Core to Strength and Courage—And Essential for Today’s Leaders

I have written multiple articles on leadership, and in particular, how previous leadership models are becoming less effective and even potentially detrimental in contemporary organizations. I have referenced new elements of leadership that are not only quite different behaviorally, but also look and feel different from a values perspective as well. In fact, as contrary to traditional leadership models as it sounds, humility, vulnerability empathy, and self-awareness are the most critical personal characteristics a leader can have today.

Why is this?

We have been socialized to see vulnerability as weakness, which is the exact opposite of what is true. Humility and vulnerability are at the core of strength and courage. Vulnerability is the courage to take a risk, to put yourself out there, when you can’t control the outcome. Humility is the strength to admit that even if you’re the CEO, you don’t have all the answers, and that you need help to succeed. In fact, any random three people in an organization, working as a team, will consistently make better decisions and do better work collectively that even the highest performance individuals and leaders. Emotional intelligence (EQ) requires deep self-awareness and empathy, and because leadership is becoming more about effectively understanding, supporting, and empowering people in organizations, EQ has become central to leadership efficacy.

To be clear, this is not just an opinion about the value of vulnerability, humility, and emotional intelligence for leaders today. It is based on nearly 20 years of research by Dr. Brené Brown, with tens of thousands of subjects. It is some of the most compelling and convincing psycho-social leadership data available today. It also happens to be common sense.

Unfortunately, however, as operating environments get more volatile and organizations struggle to achieve performance objectives, executive leaders and boards tend to “double down” from a place of fear, defaulting to absolutely wrong, reactionary decisions. They look for leaders with strong, “executive” personalities and styles who can take a “firm hand” in the organization, tasked with reducing complexity, limiting change, centralizing control, and going “back to basics.” Or, more simply, they just do what they’ve always done and choose leaders that look familiar. This is a huge mistake because complexity and volatility are now intrinsic to operating environments—they are not variables that can be controlled by leaders—and trying to slow down change is a fool’s errand regardless. On the contrary, organizations today need people experts, who can empower entire organizations to innovate—which also happens to be the best strategy for keeping up with change. Or, as Eric Schmidt, co-founder of Google puts it, you need to position your employees as thought leaders. Very few game changing ideas at Google come out of the “C-Suite.”

Likewise, the solution to improving performance in unstable settings, where the goal posts keep moving, is turning as many people as possible into passionate, courageous entrepreneurs with the autonomy to address challenges on the fly; it is not going back to the basics of centralized control.

In short, organizations are made up of people, and those people are more stressed, anxious, and emotionally fragile than at any previous point since industrial psychologists began studying it—and this is where emotional intelligence in particular comes in. Ignoring this reality is just plain dumb—and it applies to leaders as well! Getting the greatest value out of human capital is no longer about processes and procedures. Leveraging human capital today is about ensuring that the people in organizations have a sense of purpose, feel respected, appreciated and safe, can fail without fear, have excellent development opportunities, work together in highly effective teams, and have space to be the human beings that they are. That includes supporting vulnerability in employees as well. Why? Because without vulnerability (risk taking), there is no creativity. Without tolerance for failure, there is no innovation. Without creativity and innovation, organizations cannot survive and thrive in the current environment.

As Dr. Brown notes, the importance of these attributes have been understood for years. The challenge is that most of us simply haven’t had the courage to conquer the stigma and have a real conversation about vulnerability. For those who do, it is transformational.

Footnote

As noted in a previous article about the evolving model of leadership, no leader or person is binary. It is true that leaders are far more likely to be successful in contemporary organizations if they “rumble with vulnerability” on their way to courage, but that does not mean that other knowledge, skills, and abilities are no longer necessary or helpful. For example, operational expertise and financial acumen are valuable and will support a vulnerable, emotionally intelligent leader. Given a choice, following a best practice model for a given functional area or project is preferable to “winging it” or applying a poor practice. Effective, ROI based allocation of resources is preferable to “first come, first served” until the money is gone. The reality, however, is that as important as some of these skills are, they are simply “price of entry” attributes for leaders today. The value-add is found in the new elements of the evolving leadership model—and those are also generally the difference between success and failure for leaders today.

4 thoughts on “Why Humility and Vulnerability Are Core to Strength and Courage—And Essential for Today’s Leaders

    • I wrote that on the go without elaboration. Thanks for asking.

      I am describing the internal monologue/state of the person; showing/admitting vulnerability costs only one time of showing or admitting. On the contrast, the people who are arrogant/pretenders will face their vulnerabilities every time they are trying to hide them.

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