One of Stephen Covey’s famous Seven Habits of Highly Effective people tells us that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. All too often we let lesser things obscure our vision and that main thing. Covey doesn’t list vulnerability as one of the Seven Habits but in view of its role in successful team building, it should certainly be up there in the top ten.
The idea of being vulnerable as a leader conjures up images of weakness and ineptitude. But as is often the case our understanding of a word doesn’t always match the whole definition. The Oxford dictionary defines vulnerable as follows:
Vulnerable adj. that can be wounded; open to or not proof against attack, injury, criticism, etc
All too often we see vulnerability as a weakness because we assume it only means ‘can be wounded.’ We forget that when a person is vulnerable in the sense that they are open to criticism, they are in fact exceptionally strong. Having the courage to face candid feedback takes great strength, this confidence tends only to be found in people who possess sufficient self belief to weigh up the value of any criticism levelled against them.
The reverse of this often manifests itself in leaders who avoid candid feedback by pronouncing their own opinions with such vigour that no one else would dare to question them. In doing this they immediately weaken the team, as decisions can only be made from the top without drawing on the views, experiences and opinions of those they are working with. Take for example the story of a famous 18th century organist who travelled around giving recitals. In each town he hired a boy to pump the organ bellows. After one concert the boy followed the organist back to his hotel saying, “We certainly had a great concert tonight didn’t we?” “What do you mean we?” said the great performer. “I had a great concert ; now go home!” The next night half way through a magnificent fugue, the organ stopped dead, the great virtuoso looked stupefied. At that point the little organ-grinder popped his head up, grinned and said, “We ain’t havin a very good concert tonight, are we?”
Really great leaders are able to combine the need for decisive, clear and confident direction with openness and accessibility. They also appreciate that authority comes as much from asking the right questions as from giving the right answers.
Think of the best and worst leaders you have worked with: which of them listened to honest feedback? Were any of them the first to raise a hand or admit that they didn’t understand a concept or instruction? When you saw a leader behave in this way how did those around them behave? More often than not, we find that leaders that exhibit this level of vulnerability engender those around them with the same openness. Organisational politics is overcome by a sense of trust and a desire to see the team reach its potential rather than to pick on the faults of the few.
Its a little bit like the way we humans behave when we fall in love. From an early stage we want to become vulnerable and to share our life history with our new partner. Subconsciously we know that this openness will bring us closer and move us further along the romantic road. The petty differences don’t matter because the journey is such fun. Similarly if a team is prepared to be vulnerable with each other those annoying little habits can’t ever become issues. Instead they can be addressed early on and the main thing can remain the main thing.