Vulnerability in Leadership

As a leader, I recognize how important it is for me—and those leaders I follow—to discern how we express our leadership in the workplace. Similar to the Compline in the Christian tradition of the canonical hours, we can take time each evening to reflect on our day and review how we spoke and interacted with others. In addition, we can examine our motives to see whether we truly acted for the good of others or instead worked for personal gain or advantage. Then, in a gentle and non-judgmental manner, we can reflect on how to better lead others the following day. While I am not suggesting it is wrong for leaders to receive some benefit or merit, I do think that when we make decisions for personal advantage, we may in fact work against the collective good. I want to be a leader that is self-aware without being self-absorbed.

With this self-awareness comes recognition of our personal strengths and weaknesses. When leaders try to hide their weaknesses or limitations, we present ourselves as a model of perfection. Generally, this is accompanied by extremely high expectations of others in the workplace. While I don’t think leaders should go out of their way to highlight their flaws and imperfections, I appreciate the authenticity of leaders who demonstrate a degree of personal vulnerability. As a leader, I want people to recognize that I am a human being with feelings and challenges and failings who can relate to their own humanness as well.

Another aspect of vulnerability is the willingness to trust others with important tasks and responsibilities. Leaders are often viewed as the problem-solvers, but are generally far removed from both the problems and the knowledge necessary to solve them. Rather than micro-manage people, it is often far more effective for leaders to empower frontline staff to address problems head-on as these staff will recognize issues as they emerge and will know how to respond accordingly. This empowerment can happen when leaders identify the things we value, are most concerned with and want to see more of, which then leads us to build on people’s strengths as opposed to focusing on their weaknesses. In addition, leaders can promote positive growth by demonstrating appreciation and celebrating successes, which helps foster an organizational culture in which people feel pride about their accomplishments and are motivated to seek continuous improvement.

Empowerment does come at a risk, though, as leaders are ultimately accountable for results. However, leaders that utilize a strength-based approach are more likely to create a positive environment that promotes greater work performance and the improved well-being of employees. The benefits far outweigh the risks.

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A Child’s Prayer

Each night before going to sleep, K says a short prayer in his bed. The first part is a summary in which he says thank you to God for the people in his life and for what he experienced during the day.

Although the opening section constantly changes depending on K’s daily activities, the conclusion to his prayer is always the same. These are his words:

“Please be with all the children around the world and take good care of them, especially those who are feeling sick or lonely or who don’t have moms or dads.”

Regardless of people’s religious views, I wonder how different the world would be if everyone took a moment at the end of their day to think about the welfare of vulnerable children and other marginalized people in our communities.

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The Collective

Leadership is not about us as individuals; rather, leadership is about us in relation to others. This may seem simplistic or idealistic, but when leadership is viewed less as personal attainment or privilege and more as a component of healthy community, leaders will speak, act and respond in ways that benefit the collective, not just those in positions of authority.

When we view leadership within this context of relationship and community, we can focus on developing the leadership skills that will enrich not only our own lives but also the lives of those around us. Our Western culture, however, promotes leadership as something we should aspire to and fosters individualism and personal achievement.

It is far too easy to see each position of leadership as a stepping stone to greater levels of status and authority. Not only does this shift the focus from working for the collective good, it also creates a sense of competition between leaders as they jostle for positions and recognition.

In my experience, this is most clearly demonstrated by how people treat the leaders above them. If we work to undermine our leaders, we will only inherit followers who are conditioned to do the same. I also think we need to have the same integrity as followers that we want our leaders to demonstrate.

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