In my first article in this series, I wrote about 360-degree feedback, which, in and of itself, is an act of courage. After all, a business leader who agrees to receive feedback from everyone must be brave enough to face disapproval — and even harsh criticism. In other words, they must become vulnerable, and that’s what I’d like to discuss this time.
Often, 360-degree feedback can cause a series of emotional responses, including surprise, denial, rationalization and acceptance, which are natural because we’re all human. The key is to use the feedback to become the best you can be rather than retreating into old bad habits.
For example, say a CEO shares with her senior leadership team two areas of her 360-degree feedback that she’s struggling with: clarity of communication and availability for face-to-face discussions. She explains why receiving negative feedback in these areas is hard for her — she’s always considered herself a great communicator with an open-door policy — and states her commitment to do better. She even goes one step further by inviting her team to hold her accountable if/when she cancels a meeting or is unclear in her communication.
Being upfront in this manner is a very courageous act because she’s made herself vulnerable and is sharing her imperfections with others. In turn, she builds even greater trust and understanding with her team members, who help her refine her messaging and spend more time interacting directly with her employees.
On the other hand, let’s say a newly hired CEO receives 360-degree feedback and learns that he’s too closed off to others. One of the respondents recommends that he share his personal history — be vulnerable — and tell others about where he grew up and how that contributes to his leadership style. So at a companywide meeting, he shares the challenges of his childhood, where nothing he did was ever good enough for his parents, and that to get to where he is today, he had to be better than others — smarter, faster and loyal to the right people. What his leadership team hears in his disclosure is not vulnerability but rather a message of his ego and perfectionism. Within a few short months, his behavior shows that he plays favorites, shuns or shames anyone who disagrees with him and openly bullies one or two members of his leadership team during meetings. This leader thinks he was being open and vulnerable with his team, but he only created a culture of fear and distrust. Eventually, all but two of his original leadership team leave, and the board who hired him starts to notice the decline in the organization.
This is an example of how becoming vulnerable isn’t always a good thing if a leader responds to that openness by doubling down on negative traits. Your response should be a move toward the positive — even if your initial reaction to feedback is hurt feelings.
When all is said and done, leadership isn’t necessarily a position or title. It’s about how one chooses to show up to work, demonstrate one’s values to others and, in doing so, lead an organization forward in an affirmative, productive direction. There’s no doubt that leadership takes courage, but remember, courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s feeling the fear of being vulnerable and stepping into it authentically in an honest effort to improve and grow.
I believe we all can be leaders if we choose to be. It’s a choice first, and only afterward can we learn and practice the skills to become better leaders. I believe leadership can be developed in three simple (but not necessarily easy) steps:
1. Choose it.
Sometimes even those in leadership roles, such as managers, executives and business owner, are reluctant leaders. They second-guess every decision they make and often look to those in even higher positions or outside advisors to make tough choices. Good leaders must first be able to look in the mirror and say to themselves, “Yes, I’m in charge.” Putting oneself in the hot seat is an act of vulnerability.
2. Learn it.
Being a leader isn’t simply giving orders; it’s developing a wide range of skills to gather information and make good decisions. This is an ongoing — even lifelong — process. Leadership development is also an act of vulnerability because it involves regularly admitting, “I don’t know everything” and “I’ve got to get better.”
3. Do it.
Leadership involves execution. You can only theorize and float ideas around for so long before you need to put tangible, practical plans into action. If those plans go awry, then you must take those lessons to heart and learn from them. Risking failure is — you guessed it — an act of vulnerability.
If you happen to be a fan of research professor Brené Brown, you might have guessed that she’s one of my inspirations for this article. In an interview on CBS, Brown said, “Vulnerability is, I believe … the only path to courage, and it is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, trust, empathy.”
While Brown was a doctoral student, one of her professors told her, “If you cannot measure it, it does not exist.” I’ve always believed this to be true as well. In fact, it drove me to create our own way to measure leaders’ confidence and competence. By measuring these items over time — at the beginning, middle and end of a planned development effort — you can often see measurable growth in courage, confidence, trust and empathy. Before measuring leaders’ confidence and competence, I always congratulate them for allowing themselves to become vulnerable in this manner.
Ultimately, courage, openness and vulnerability are core strengths that every leader needs to cultivate to be more influential, inspire others and become more effective.