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Why and How: Leader Vulnerability and Leader Transparency

Paradoxically, leader vulnerability is the access to real, authentic power, as scary as that thought is for leaders who have not tried it on.

Being vulnerable happens when you are transparent; doing such things as telling it like it is even when the news is not pretty.  Even when the thought is terrifying.  Like admitting that customers hated the launch, the product, the event.  One famous example of a product failure that led to the reintroduction of Coke Classic was the much publicized introduction of the NEW Coke. Just when you think you’ve got everything all figured out, reality comes knocking.  You create transparency and that is vulnerable.  You be vulnerable by being transparent.  Both improve trust.

I personally have learned that, and it has softened me and made me — well — VULNERABLE.   And powerful.

Ori Brafman, author of The Magic of Instant Connections, says vulnerability can actually be one of the best way to engender trust with employees.  In an Entrepreneur Thought Leader Lecture, presented at Stanford University Ori pointed out that instead of giving power away, vulnerability creates a binding, deep relationship within the workplace, one that also gives managers a “soft power” that they can use to keep the company running.

The down side of success is that it can make leaders think they are masters of the Universe.  This is faulty thinking; NO one is master of the Universe — not even our own!  Bad things happen to good people.

Trust and transparency are interwoven. Life and business are unpredictable and anyone who has not noticed is not very observant.  Certainly your employees have noticed.  They are not counting on you any more for the gold watch at the end of their watch over your company.  Even some IBM’ers — those whose velvet glove met and exceeded expectations once upon a time — are seeking second jobs and planning exits to be on their own.  My brother-in-law worked for IBM his entire adult life only to be cut loose short of retirement age after surviving change after change after change.

Then again, good things (powerful things) happen when a leader is transparent.  Glenn Llopis wrote a Forbes article highlighting some of those good things.   In this blog I present the abbreviated version, his five powerful things with my own explanation.  His full version can be found here.

According to Llopis in his Fortune article, “Being transparent is a powerful thing, if you can trust yourself and be trusted by others.  The reason most leaders are not transparent is because they believe they will be viewed as less authoritative; that the credentials they worked so hard to attain will lose their power, leverage and gravitas.   This is the problem with most leaders, they are not aware of the reality that exists around them.   People want to relate to its leaders.   People want to know that their leaders have experienced the same problems and/or how they have overcome personal hardships.

“The digital age has allowed people to learn more about their leaders.    As such, social media has suddenly given people the permission to enter a leader’s personal space; a place they were previously prohibited from entering.   The digital age has changed the levels of transparency that we expect from people too.

We are all living during a time when people want and expect their leaders to be more human, less perfect and at times a bit vulnerable – regardless of hierarchy or rank.”

Why Transparency should be Attractive to Leaders

1.     Problems Are Solved Faster

May I suggest that you read Steven M.R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust.  Bottom line: no trust, no speed (the trust tax).  Increase trust, improve speed (the trust dividend).  You need look no further than government to see this effect.

2.     Teams Are Built Easier

I worked with a company recently whose leaders were not on the same page regarding how to handle employee performance gaps.  Once the leadership team was aligned (not necessarily in total agreement, but at least aligned in word and action), team became TEAM.  That was the start of big productivity gains.

3.     Relationships Grow Authentically

I had the pleasure of being an adult facilitator for a Rotary program that brought together 77 juniors in high school to a camp to teach them business principles and have them apply those principles to a product, a location, and all things related to the business plan.  Groups of 9 and 10 competed for the best business plan.  These teams of students had the advantage of not knowing one another going into this challenge.  I was fortunate to be with the winning team.  You have to know that each member of this team successfully figured out  how to communicate with one another from their awareness of their individual strength and experience, FAST.  The entire experience was 2 days, and in that time they wrote a business plan and presented it in a contest.  The experience was “relationship reality on steroids.”  Not REAL steroids, and for me it was a hopeful experience because it was an unbelievable encounter with effectiveness.

Relationships don’t truly begin to take shape until a problem is encountered and resolved together.

4.     People Begin to Promote Trust in Their Leader

If you are transparent, especially during the worst of times, you actually strengthen your leadership as people begin to trust you as person and thus will respect you more as a leader.

Employees may have trusted their leaders in the past, but after their leader becomes transparent their employees are now more willing to promote trust in their leader with others.  This eliminates any preconceived judgments.

5.     Higher-Levels of Performance Emerge

This is a natural outcome.  At least I have found it to be so.

Based on Glenn’s five points, the formula is simple:

“Efficient problem solving + the ability to build teams easier + the development of authentic relationships + trust = higher levels of performance.”

So how the heck do you create transparency by being vulnerable? 

If you agree that vulnerability and transparence are good, and appreciate why they are useful, how do you get there?  How did I get there?

Sometimes nothing short of a teeth-rattling event will precipitate the inner shift required to become vulnerable and transparent.  I suggest you choose it rather than have it happen to you when you screw up — like the decision makers at Coca Cola those many years ago.

I chose to take the Landmark Forum 14 years ago AFTER I had been hit upside the head with several successive failures including some health and personal ones.  Don’t wait for those.  Put yourself into an intense learning setting. I have never looked back, having now taken MOST of the education that Landmark provides.  Choose your own earth-shattering event,  but choose one.  Landmark is not the ONLY place where you can shake up your assumptions about the world.  I envy a friend of mine who has chosen the Strozzi Institute.  Why am I envious?  Because now I am a fan of doing growth and development work, so I am always hungry for more.  Hungry is not, I promise you, how I started!  I was resistant, righteous, and rebellious.  Much like I experience CEOs who take only their own advice.

Mind you, I agree that at the end of the day we all need to take our own advice, trust our own gut — once reflection and conclusion having been richly and openly fed by ALL interested informants.  I suggest you take coaching from a rock.

Before 1999 I would have said, to the above suggestion, “You talkin’ to ME?”   Today I would respond with “Duh.”


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