It’s 2017. The Mad Men era has long since passed. So I’m here to tell you: get over yourself.
Gone are the days when leaders are expected to never, ever show weakness or vulnerability for fear of causing their employees to doubt or question them. This kind of mentality isn’t just archaic — it’s absolute nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong. As a leader, you must be strong and resilient, especially during challenging times. But that doesn’t mean at the right time, in the right forum, in the right way, you can’t admit your vulnerabilities — even, dare I say it — your weaknesses and blind spots.
Let’s be real for a moment. Do you honestly think for even a second that your employees believe you never feel weak, down or uncertain? Of course not. They know you’re a human being, and that means you are, by definition, not perfect. So if you pretend to have all the answers and absolute strength 100 percent of the time, your peers probably discount that by at least 45 percent to be on the safe side. However, if you’re actually honest about the 10 percent of the time you screw things up, then you’ll be much more likely to get buy-in that you know what you’re doing the other 90 percent of the time.
Why does leadership require vulnerability? Because fundamentally, a team can’t function without trust, and vulnerability is required to foster trust in others. A good friend of mine, Alan Katz, helped coach me on this concept over the past few years. His teaching was based on The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni — I book I’d highly recommend if you haven’t read it already. The dysfunctions that Lencioni outlines are visualized as a pyramid with a foundation of mistrust.
It all boils down to this: If there’s an absence of trust, you end up with fear of conflict within your organization. If you don’t have conflict, there’s no commitment. If there’s no commitment, then there’s no accountability—and that leads to no one caring about the results. Conversely, if you foster trust from the top of your organization, it will massively amplify the trust among your team and your peers.
All healthy, successful, hyper-performing teams are built on trust. Vulnerability creates trust. Therefore, you must be vulnerable to create a culture of trust in your organization. As with most things, what you do as CEO trickles down to the rest of your team, so if you want your executives and managers to be vulnerable with you, you have to start by opening up about your own weaknesses and fears.
I distinctly remember a situation in which I shared with one of my executives, in a moment of weakness, some fairly meaningful self-doubt. And if that wasn’t bad enough, over one too many beers. I shared what I had done with one of my investors, caveating that I knew I shouldn’t have. His reply blew me away. Instead of chastising me for a lapse in judgment, he admitted that he, too, doubts himself regularly. This moment of bonding over shared weakness served to strengthen our relationship in a powerful way. He’s gone on to be, hands down, my strongest advocate and supporter through good times and bad. This is the power of vulnerability at work.
As an added bonus, if you’re building a business around a greater why or purpose, convincing your employees to buy into your higher purpose is a lot easier when you prove that you’re a human who doubts and makes mistakes and doesn’t know everything all the time.
Do the right thing. Start today by admitting your weaknesses — to yourself and to your trusted peers. If you can’t do it, get help. It’s one of the most important things you’ll ever do as a leader.