The Vulnerable Leader

Image by TukTukDesign from Pixabay

3 minute read

Just two months ago—which I’m sure we all agree feels like a lifetime ago—Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred did something eyebrow-raising. The story begins with Manfred referring to the World Series trophy as “a piece of metal” during an interview, for which he caught quite a bit of flak and outrage from players and fans alike. But rather than ignoring his detractors or doubling down on his position, Manfred showed true leadership when he gave this straightforward, praiseworthy apology two days later in a news conference:

“I want to apologize for that. There’s no excuse for it. I made a mistake. I was trying to make a point, but I should’ve made it in a more effective way, and again, I want to apologize for it. I will say this: I’ve awarded five World Series trophies. There is no greater pleasure in this job than awarding that trophy. I understand what it means, and again, it was a mistake to say what I said.”

His apology had such profound impact because it was earnest, it was clear, and it was heartfelt. In other words, it was vulnerable. I know that vulnerable is often treated like a four-letter word in the business world, but it’s incredibly important for those who are called to lead to understand the role that vulnerability plays in building trust between people.

We’ve talked time and again about how critical it is, that not only do leaders trust the motivation of those they would lead, but that followers also trust their leader’s motivation and competency to navigate crises, difficult situations, and awkward conversations.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The nature of the leader-follower relationship is such that a follower follows someone because they believe their would-be leader is not only motivated to, but also capable of, helping the follower succeed. There are a variety of different ways that a leader-manager demonstrates competency, including using their technical skills, managerial skills, leadership skills, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skillfulness. These leadership skills support a would-be follower’s ability to trust that their leader can help them build important skills, get the resources they need, remove obstacles in the way of doing the job well, and can point the follower to the right place to get answers when the leader themselves doesn’t have them.

However, every leader is human and is going to make mistakes. For a follower to be able to trust that this is still the person they should be following—despite inevitable mistakes—the leader has to own up to their mistakes immediately. Leaders who own up to their shortfalls immediately do so because they understand that an unwillingness to practice situational vulnerability does more damage to trust than any faux pas could do.

And this is true even now. For all the panic, anxiety, and grief the ongoing world pandemic events have caused, we’ve also seen great examples of leadership vulnerability first-hand in recent weeks, as several governors and mayors have reversed their public health responses and decisions regarding COVID-19. Might we, the public, be disappointed that they made mistakes? Of course, but some understanding is warranted, because no elected official in office today has ever led through a pandemic before. Were their mistakes costly? Absolutely. However, every day, leaders around the world are able to mitigate the damage done by their decisions by how quickly they are willing to reverse course in the face of new information or negative outcomes.

Think about it this way. Who do you trust more: someone you know made a mistake and accepted responsibility for it, or someone who makes a mistake but is constitutionally incapable of owning up to their missteps because of insecurity or fear of the consequences of their lack of judgment?

What kind of leader is afraid of accountability for their decisions?

Someone who lacks the intestinal fortitude to be accountable probably shouldn’t be in a leadership position in the first place.

After all, as President Harry Truman famously said, the buck stops here.

Finally, what about the leader who just makes a lot of mistakes, accountable or not? Perhaps the leadership role or that particular leadership role is not the right fit for them.

As Forrest Gump famously said, it happens.

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