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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Taken

Imarii? When I lived in Zimbabwe, this was one of the most important Shona words that I learned. Imarii means, How much is it? Whenever I went to buy fruits and vegetables or other items in the market, I would be quoted at least eight times more if I didn’t ask in the Shona language about the price. As a murungu (white person), I would generally be viewed as a visitor and would be charged more. Sometimes when I asked in Shona I would still be quoted a ridiculous amount, but after a quick aiwa (no!) and a shake of the head, I’d usually get a fair price.

Here in Canada, I wish there was a similar way for me to pay an appropriate amount for goods and services that I’m not knowledgeable about. When I left my car at the service station this morning, I expected to pay just over $200 for an oil change, new wipers and a summer tire installation. By the time I picked up my car in the afternoon, I needed to pay nearly $1,000, which is a significantly higher amount. This kind of situation happens to me more frequently than it should.

When it comes to things such as home repairs or car servicing, I have no idea how much these goods and services should cost so I’m occasionally taken advantage of when I seek out assistance. I’m never sure whether I’m supposed to bargain or haggle in these situations, and I wouldn’t know what work would be essential or not anyway. I wish there was a guidebook that could help me navigate through my interactions with tradespersons and salespersons.

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Strengths

Ever since K started kindergarten, R and I have attended annual spring meetings with the school leadership team to discuss K’s academic progress and to align on a plan for the coming year. In the past, we’ve generally received negative reports that focused on his social inhibition and his challenges keeping up with the curriculum. Tears have been shed at these meetings.

This year, however, is different. We’ve witnessed incredible academic and social development in K over the course of Grade 3, and today’s meeting with the school team was infused with hope and positive feedback. This is primarily due to K’s teacher, Ms R. Instead of focusing on K’s weaknesses, Ms R recognized early on in the school year that K possesses strong math and reading skills. Knowing that it’s tough for K to initiate conversations, she utilized his strengths by having him help others with math problems and partnering as a reading buddy. While K still needs help with abstract questions and concepts, and he’s not able to draw much of anything (much like his father), he’s progressing well with the key academic disciplines, his social skills are improving, and he even participated on the cross country team.

At this point, my biggest concern is that my son’s math skills are already more advanced than mine. I’m embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t understand some of his homework the other day. At least I won’t be one of those parents who always complete their children’s homework for them.

Today I’ve been challenged to think about how I can better utilize strengths and assets instead of focusing on needs and weaknesses. This is applicable to me as I engage with others at work as a supervisor and at home as a husband and father. It’s also an important lesson to employ internally as I reflect on how I view, value and speak to myself.

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