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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The Public Sphere

“A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.”—Jurgen Habermas

When I first read about Jurgen Habermas’ notion of the public sphere, I thought about social media and how it could offer a place for all people to connect publicly and discuss issues critically. However, I see limited evidence of this happening. While I’m sure at least one critical thought for every 2.5 million ridiculous ones does appear on social media, I wouldn’t consider Facebook or Twitter to be useful tools for challenging the status quo. Given the self-absorbed nature of most social media content, and the fact that social media is a major driver in digital profiling and segmented advertising, I would argue that it’s more subjugating than traditional media.

What’s most disturbing is the growing number of people addicted to social media channels and the devices they use to access them, which means that social media is not only manipulative but something that has become embedded into our culture. Even if we try to use social media tools to engage in civic or political discussion, we are bombarded with advertising and suggested content within the framework of each channel. As well, since these social media channels filter the content we receive (based on various criteria), they are controlling to a significant degree the content we see and don’t see. Individuals, corporations and governments can also pay money to prioritize their content, which pushes other unpaid content down below. This can impact how we view authority and the ways in which we accept or question the world around us.

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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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Status Anxiety

“What do you do?” When meeting someone for the first time, this is one of the first questions we usually ask. There’s a sense that once we discover what people do for a living, we will have a better idea of who they are and what value they offer to the world.

Living in a status-driven society, we also quickly determine—whether consciously or unconsciously—our station in relation to others. Are we more or less important? Who is in a position of authority? Are these people worthy of my respect and admiration?

Some of us may take this a step further and wonder—and perhaps worry—what others think of us. Do they acknowledge my importance? Do they view me as successful? Do they recognize my special skills or abilities?

It’s a sad reality that many people treat others according to how they perceive their level of status. As such, we have a vested interest in achieving excellence and power as this generally results in people treating us better.

When our happiness depends on how people perceive us (and possessing what they have), we become afflicted with what Alain de Botton refers to as “status anxiety.” In his book Status Anxiety, de Botton outlines five major causes that lead to this social disease (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, dependence) and then offers five solutions, one of which is Christianity.

De Botton argues that the constant struggle to stand out in the crowd and be different usually only leads to bitterness, shame and depression. Christianity, on the other hand, has the opportunity to build community. “Being like everyone else is not, to follow Christian thought, any sort of calamity,” he writes, “for it was one of Jesus’ central claims that all human beings, including the slow-witted, the untalented and the obscure, are creatures of God and loved by him—and are hence deserving of the honour owed to every example of the Lord’s work.”

Despite what we hear from the judgmental rhetoric spewed by the religious right in America, Christians are called to look beyond their differences and discover what binds people together. Every person has vulnerabilities, every person has a desire for love, but it’s often difficult for us to view others in this way.

Jesus knew this. When the disciples, perhaps jostling among themselves for positions of authority, asked him, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” he responded by calling over a small child. “Truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4).

While it’s easy to dismiss or judge a stranger, it’s much harder to do so with a child. When we seek to treat others with the same kindness and compassion we’d naturally show to the young, we come closer to realizing God’s kingdom on earth.

“So it is that belonging is the place where we grow to maturity and discover what it means to be human and to act in a human way,” writes Jean Vanier in Becoming Human. “It is the place we need in order to live and to act in society in justice, in truth, without seeking power, privileges and honours for our own self-glory. It is the place where we learn to be humble but also audacious and to take initiatives in working with others.”

The practice of Christian fellowship—whether simply gathering in a home or worshipping in a church building—has the potential to tear down society’s value system. When our focus is on loving God and loving our neighbour, it matters little to us whether the person sitting next to us is a panhandler or a doctor. Nor are we worried about what the person sitting next to us thinks of our career choice or fashion sense.

In his opening thesis, de Botton suggests that “the hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system. But, like all appetites, its excesses can also kill.”

As someone still learning how to be humble, I do not wish to hunger for status or position. However, I do want to use my talents and abilities in ways that are meaningful and life-giving, not only for me but also for others. I suppose the simplest way to express this is that I want to feel useful and make a difference in the world without striving to be powerful or important.

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