Leader is a big word. For many, it evokes an image of a stern, accomplished person calling the shots, signing off on every detail, and voluntarily carrying the weight of an organization on their shoulders. This person is not infallible, but they are treated as such. Employees may look to them with high esteem, but find them intimidating or even unapproachable. Reverence is an enticing quality, but it quietly stunts growth and hinders progress.
In our quest to learn more about leadership and what really makes it effective, HCI has worked on several research projects examining what makes leaders tick, and what kinds of leadership employees most value (Take a look at them here if you’re interested!) And during a recent conversation with one of our clients, one particular anecdote about this topic stopped me in my tracks: “More than anything else, leadership is about vulnerability.”
What? No. Leadership is about making decisions. Leadership is about laying down the law. Leadership is about driving a company forward. Leadership is about setting an example for others to follow…right? Suddenly, I wasn’t sure.
As I pondered the concept of vulnerability, it clicked. Laying down the law, setting an example, making decisions – these are all leader behaviors, and essential ones at that, but alone, they are the behaviors that only characterize good leaders. Not great ones.
In every era of history, we can look back at the leaders who fell and usually trace their collapse to some form of arrogance. Napoleon Bonaparte is probably the most frequently cited example, but many others can also attribute their fall from grace to an overinflated sense of self-worth and ability. Some more modern examples might include Tony Hayward from BP, the late Ken Lay from Enron, Mark Hurd from HP, and former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Let me be clear – arrogance is not confidence. Confidence is a necessary belief in oneself that gives you the motivation to be innovative and risk letdowns, but arrogance is its intoxicated brother that deceives one into believing they are beyond reproach or failure.
Great leaders understand the delicate balance between confidence and arrogance. And perhaps most importantly, great leaders know how to be vulnerable – and how to model that vulnerability for others in the organization. Thinking about what makes a great leader great is the truth that leaders are people – and people are not static. Vulnerability in a leader is the willingness to admit that you do not know all the answers, that you are constantly growing your skills and changing your perspectives, and that you want and need others to help you be better, everyday. As Liz Wiseman writes in her book, Multipliers, [Great leaders – multipliers] “see intelligence as continually developing. This observation is consistent with what Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” which is a belief that basic qualities like intelligence and ability can be cultivated through effort. They assume: people are smart and will figure it out.”
For me, leader is still a big word. It evokes a lot of responsibility, an obligation to nurture an organization and its employees, which is no small or easy task. But the best leaders also care - about themselves and their peers. They understand that their leadership ability is a tangible, shifting thing that requires constant gardening, weeding, and nourishment. It is only by exposing this vulnerability and supporting others that they can truly capitalize on the great opportunity that being a leader provides, and guide their organizations most effectively.
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