Growing up in a military home, the concept of “vulnerability” was like kryptonite. It meant weakness, deficiency in war and exposure to imminent attack!
I was taught that the goal of life was to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and control your destiny. The house rule was to never ask for help, and “Never let them see your sweat.” If you do, people will use it against you.
I hear this same idea echoed by business leaders who say things like, “It’s inappropriate to share personal things in business.” I know from experience that these comments come from some sort of misplaced modesty or an attempt to protect ourselves.
Here’s the paradox. Leaders who try to be perfect, self-sufficient and all-knowing wind up having to throw their weight around and keep others at arm’s length. They have to project bullet-proof competence.
No doubt, competence is crucial, but research by psychologist and Harvard faculty member Amy Cuddy shows that people will trust leaders who demonstrate warmth before they trust those that deal in competence alone. A few years ago, I heard former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, Jr. speak to a group of entrepreneurs. We were there to hear about the keys to success. But McColl talked about his life lessons—and mistakes. He reminisced about growing up in Bennettsville, South Carolina. His father was a cotton farmer first, and a banker second. Someone asked, “Did you ever consider farming?” and he responded, “I didn’t have the brains for farming.” We laughed and listened as though we were in the company of a dear friend as he shared the things his life had taught him.
Why don’t more leaders practice vulnerability and imperfection?
It seems counter-intuitive. One business owner (we’ll call him Dave) told me, “I’m the owner. I’m the only one who can provide the solution to this problem.” Dave was under extraordinary pressure from the outside, but he was making his job more difficult and causing his team to distrust him by leaving them out.
If you want to engage others and earn their trust, here are six ways you can practice vulnerability and imperfection:
1. Share Lessons Learned, Admit Mistakes
Vulnerability and the willingness to share with others what your life has taught you builds trust. Know-it-all-ness is off-putting and stifles innovation. The leader with natural influence says, “Let me tell you about something I learned the hard way,” instead of dictating the course to take.
2. Lead with Questions, Not Answers
If you’re the “teller” and don’t ask people what they think, they will withhold their best stuff—the very stuff that may lead to the next breakthrough. Ask questions that begin with, “What have you noticed, how do you think we could improve, what is keeping us stuck, what do you love about it?”
3. Leave Room for Others To Be Right
Watch out for the destructive practice of making people wrong. Even if their idea is not the way to go, acknowledge the contribution. When you establish a safe environment in which people have the opportunity to be right, they will take ownership of the results.
4. Insist on Feedback, Welcome Challenge
Let the team know you won’t tolerate compliance for the sake of pleasing you. In addition, make it clear you have no need for yes men and yes women. Ask, “What do you need from me to nail this project?” And “What am I missing on my end?” We trust and engage with leaders who are not threatened by people who speak their minds to offer value.
5. Change Your Mind
If people know they can approach you and make a case for another solution on a project, you will always be presented with the best ideas to maintain a competitive edge. If someone has a better idea, change your mind along with the course of action. You will earn the reputation of being fair and open-minded.
6. Be Vulnerable and Slow Down to Connect
It begins with waking up to the next interaction, from the parking lot to the coffee pot. People need genuine human encounters—the physical presence of another human being along with their complete attention is like oxygen. Reaching out, even in a brief moment to say hello can make a difference. Unless you trust your own ability to make a single human connection, you cannot expect to build influence within a group of any kind.
Years ago, I was leaving a business breakfast and ran into my friend Catharine. She is a real estate executive and a wonderful spitfire of a human being. When she asked about my business, instead of pretending everything was “fine,” I told her that I was worried that I didn’t have what it took to be a small business owner in the recession.
Catharine stopped and grabbed my forearm. She looked me in the eye and said, “Punch it in the gut, Lou. We need you out here. Punch this thing in the gut.” As I drove out of the parking lot that morning, I passed Catharine walking to her car. She waived and threw a karate kick in the air. I laughed out loud.
Vulnerability builds trust in others—but it also provides you with the relief that comes with the freedom to be human. That moment of human vulnerability shared with Catharine gave me a shift in perception. I was lighter, more hopeful. Not much in this world is more powerful than a change of mind.
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