If you’ve seen Brené Brown’s TED talk — and with more than 34 million views, you probably have — you know the research professor and corporate trainer makes a strong case for the power of vulnerability. In a recent podcast, Brown discussed the connection between vulnerability and a key leadership trait: courage.
Based on everything I’ve learned over a half century of working with people and organizations, I agree with what Brown said in that podcast: Leading takes courage — and courage requires vulnerability.
At first the two appear to be opposites. Isn’t courage all about being tough and invulnerable? Not at all. An act of courage — starting a new product line in your business, for example — entails risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure. There’s no guarantee your idea will succeed and you risk the uncomfortable emotions that accompany failure.
The power of vulnerability even applies to the most traditionally tough occupations. For example, Brown recently spoke to the leadership team for special operations at Fort Bragg. She asked the top brass to name one example of courage in the line of duty that does not require vulnerability. They couldn’t.
It’s a myth that courage and vulnerability are not linked. And if you pretend you know it all in an attempt to appear invulnerable, you’re not fooling anyone. Back when my son Scott was a new assistant manager at the InterContinental Hotel, he found this out the hard way.
One night he and his team had to get a large space ready for a big convention. His direct reports started to complain about working late. Not sure what to do, Scott used his position as a manager to come down on them — hard.
“Tough cookies,” he told them, but not in such nice language. “I don’t want to stay late either. But after your break, you all need to get back in here and work.”
Still grumbling, his team members headed for the break room. When they didn’t report back, Scott went into the break room and discovered every single one had clocked out — which meant he and a skeleton crew had to work until 6 a.m. the next morning to get the space ready.
The next day Scott went to his boss and demanded that everyone be fired. His boss laughed and said, “You need to learn how to manage.” It was a powerful lesson in vulnerability: “I realized that people don’t care about your position; they care about how you treat them,” Scott said. “You need to show people you’re with them. As a manager, the way you relate to your employees will become a topic around their dinner tables at night.”
It’s also a myth that a vulnerable leader can’t get strong financial results. A great example is Alan Mulally, the CEO who brought Ford Motor Co. back from the brink of bankruptcy. When Mulally joined Ford in 2006, the organization was in deep trouble. That year it reported a $12.7 billion loss — the biggest in its 103-year history. The company’s debt was rated seven levels below investment grade and all its assets were mortgaged. To the consumer, Ford had become synonymous with “Fix or Repair Daily.”
Mulally understood that turning the company around would require courage. He would need to be open to people’s emotions and understand how those emotions would affect their behavior. He would need to accept difficult feedback. He would have to be comfortable with risk and facing an uncertain future. He would have to be vulnerable.
Taking the risk of transparency, Mulally and the company’s CFO and operations executives sat down with union officials and shared the books. Labor leaders became convinced that if the company was going to save Ford, management and labor would have to save it together. The leadership team and union collaborated to reduce Ford’s employees from 100,000 to 45,000 through retirements and voluntary buyouts.
Mulally’s courageous vulnerability worked. By the time he retired in 2014, Ford had posted 19 consecutive profitable quarters. Under his leadership, one of America’s iconic 20th century companies weathered the tumultuous changes of the early 21st century.
Colleen Barrett, president emerita of Southwest Airlines, taught me that “People admire you for your skills but love you for your vulnerability.” I would add that vulnerability is a skill — and a learnable one. By demonstrating a willingness to fail in service to something you care about, you, as a leader, can show others the power of vulnerability.
Ken Blanchard is chief spiritual officer of The Ken Blanchard Cos. and co-author of “Servant Leadership in Action.” He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.