All of us have to lead somewhere along the line. Whether it’s to lead ourselves through a situation or a time period, to lead a family or partnership, to lead a team, business or community. Leadership through crisis or change adds even more scrutiny and analysis to the requirements of strong and effective leadership.
Two words continue to come to the forefront – Agility and Vulnerability. To lead well in this day and age, you must be considered to have both.
Agility is the ability to cope with rapid change and to make decisions accordingly. The dictionary describes vulnerability as “the inability to withstand the effects of a hostile environment”. Bulletproof and unemotional leadership won’t do anymore. “Disconnected” and stoic leadership are things of the past. Vulnerability is the ability to feel and connect – to yourself and how you do things; to your team and their needs; to your marketplace and the needs of your clients and community. Vulnerability is something we’re starting to realise is a massive strength to leadership, but it’s not something that’s easy. No… vulnerability is HARD. That’s why it takes strong leadership to master it and use it to communicate.
Mother Teresa said “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.” Leadership requires some fairly strong stuff from us, regardless of our level or named position. Whether you lead a family, a team, a business, or a country – honesty and transparency are vital.
Here’s one fundamental reason why:
As human beings, we have tendencies. One of our truly human tendencies is to try and keep ourselves safe by scouting out as much information as possible to inform the picture of the world around us. We’re particularly interested in information that affects us directly. However, when there are blanks in the information available, we tend to fill in those blanks with the absolute worst-case scenario imaginable. Why? Because we’re designed to protect ourselves – it’s human nature. So when blanks of any description are left, our brain gets to work on deciding what the possible reasoning is and how that reasoning might affect us so that we’re ready to address it. This tendency is fuelled by fear, and you can imagine where it can lead us, given the opportunity.
Honesty and transparency are hard:
Honesty and transparency may be two of the hardest qualities that leadership asks of us. They require that we state our truth openly and fully – which leaves us no space to manoeuvre if things don’t go the way we expect them to. It means that we must continue down the path of truth we’ve chosen regardless of the outcome or consequences, and it requires that we take full responsibility for those outcomes and consequences. You can see where the vulnerability comes into it. Here is where we question ourselves in our quiet moments about the true strength that we hold when leading people. Are you strong enough to be vulnerable? Are you strong enough to champion truth?
What does vulnerability gain you?
Let’s go back to that human tendency to fill in the blanks with the worst-case scenario, and look at the cost of leaving those blanks for the people we lead to fill in. Leadership puts us in a position of imminent failure. We are, after all, only human. At some stage, something will go pear-shaped, and we’ll have to admit that we didn’t get it right. And THEN what will people think of us?? There are herds of quotes on the link between leadership and failure, and all percolate down to the fact that failure is a requirement of progression. Leadership and success are about how many times you were willing to get back up again after those failures. So assuming that failure at some stage is certain, let’s look at the cost of honest and transparent leadership.
One way, or another:
There are two ways to do this – each with different costs and outcomes.
1. We keep our cards close to our chest – giving us the greatest chance of handling hurdles as they come up and steering the ship smoothly. Surely this option allows followers to be calm and carry on whilst we, as leaders, handle the bumps as they come up? Our followers maintain faith in us because we shield them from the rough patches and unexpected nasties, at the same time as maintaining our serenity as a leader (at least on the outside). Strong leadership, …right?
2. We are honest and transparent – acting with openness and allowing our teams to follow the process with us. As we’ve already discussed, this leaves us vulnerable as leaders to everyone knowing when things don’t go according to plan and when a new plan has to be made. This opens us up to being viewed as having failed to call things correctly in the first place and sets our followers up for anxiety and doubt as the journey progresses. How, then, can honesty and vulnerability be the recommended route for strong leadership?
The outcomes of these two options may seem counter-intuitive until you factor in the aforementioned human tendency.
1. When leaders are not honest and transparent, followers don’t sit back and assume you have it all under control as you may think. If they don’t have enough information to work and reason with, their minds go ahead and….fill in the blanks. With the worst-case scenario. Because then they’ll be fully prepared if and when the plan fails. In essence, this is a transference of the heavy stuff from the shoulders of the leader, to the shoulders of the followers – at least initially. When things don’t go according to plan, followers not only get to call you out on it in a “we told you so” kind of way but, (and here’s where the cost gets heavy) you’ve passed up the chance to show dignified leadership through Plan B because they now distrust you.
2. When leaders ARE honest and transparent, it allows followers to assess all the possibilities as they are laid on the table (and not as they have to overthink them), and holds the leadership accountable for the outcomes. This keeps the responsibility (and weight) squarely on the shoulders of the leadership, rather than burdening the team with anxiety. This leaves leaders vulnerable. Not vulnerable to failure – failure at some stage is an assumed part of leadership. But vulnerable to being accountable for the outcomes and, more so, vulnerable to making the correct decisions when it comes to taking responsibility for and leading people through those possible failures.
The choice of leadership:
The baseline here seems to be where you allow the weight to land. Are you willing to take it fully on your own shoulders? To be responsible for stating the facts in a timeous and open fashion so as not to burden your team with the human tendency to fill in the blanks? To be fully responsible for the projected aims and the outcomes, even if they are not favourable or as expected? Are you strong enough to lead your team through Plan B; through hurdles, hiccups, and failure and to retain their trust while you do so? Or do you need them to cushion the load for you?
The Dalai Lama summarised “The lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” Cushioning the load can be an exhausting task for your team, and it may mean that they no longer have the energy to follow you through Plan B. It may also mean that you have made sacrifices that are exceedingly hard to recover from. Sacrifices like trust and dignity – on both sides of the equation.
Here’s the kicker: It doesn’t matter if you fill in the blanks with the truth later. Distrust and insecurity are incredibly pricey to rectify.
When assessed this way, I personally feel the price of honesty, transparency and vulnerability in leadership starts to look more than viable.
by Christen Killick
October 10th, 2022
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