Why Vulnerability Is A CEO’s Secret Weapon

Chief Executive Officer

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Early in my CEO career, I would have described a great leader as someone with vision, a growth mindset, authenticity, confidence, charisma, and courage. Then a board member called me aside: “Burnison, you need to be more vulnerable. You’ll be amazed by the results.” I could see a place for humility. But vulnerability? That didn’t make it into my top 10.

That board member’s wise words are even more impactful today. Everywhere, the circuit breakers have been tripped. Now, it’s the big reset. In the next two years we will see more change than we’ve seen in the decade.

To navigate so much uncertainty and ambiguity, leaders need to be confident; but too much self-confidence can narrow their peripheral vision. As counterintuitive as it may seem, vulnerability is actually a leadership strength for leaders when we know that tomorrow’s answers won’t be found in the corner office.

Humility is the secret to staying aware, alert and nimble. It speaks in powerful phrases: I’ve never thought of that. Tell me more. Who knows more about this? Collective genius is encouraged so ideas and innovation can “bubble up” within the organization, not merely cascade down.

For that to happen, leaders must understand what people are feeling and facing amid an ongoing pandemic, massive uncertainty and long-overdue calls for social change. This is the “story behind the story,” which people may not share unless they know the leader is listening and genuinely cares. Here are 5 tips for meeting people where they are.

• Understand the “Emotion Curve.” During a crisis or times of great change, people’s reactions and behaviors follow the “Emotion Curve.” On one side is the downward slope from disbelief to anger, and then hitting bottom at withdrawal. When people get to the other side, they rise through acceptance, optimism, and meaning. No one will be in the same emotional place. Leaders need to be “emotion listeners” to diagnose and identify where people are. Avoidance and shock? That’s denial. Going through the motions of what they’ve always done or avoiding big-priority conversations? That’s overwhelmed. Asking questions about what the next month or quarter might look like? They’re on their way up the curve.

• Know how to respond (and it’s not one-size-fits-all). Leaders need to draw on their own emotional intelligence to move people from self-interest to shared interest. The key is knowing how to respond to where each person is today. Where there’s disbelief and anger, it’s all about communication—not just for information, but for connection. When people are overwhelmed, they respond to empathy. On the other side—when in acceptance or seeking meaning—people want guidance and direction.

• Communicate, always. Leadership is about transporting people from one place to another, including emotionally. It takes communication—honest and heartfelt—to truly understand others and their emotions. For example, the question, “How are you?” has been raised to a whole new level. Now it’s “How are you, today?” This simple question has sparked genuine conversation and connection among people who want to share their thoughts, concerns and fears. When we lead with our hearts we truly connect with others—creating ripples of positive energy.

• Be conscious, curious and serious. If people don’t feel that the environment is safe for sharing, communication shuts down. This calls for a culture of conscious inclusion. Leaders need to be conscious, curious, and serious to make this happen. It starts with everyone looking in the mirror at their own biases (usually unconscious) and assumptions to ensure they do not adversely impact behaviors and decisions. The next step is for leaders to ask themselves: Are we creating an environment that demonstrates respect and appreciation for the unique characteristics and talents of each person? What are we doing—what are we saying so people can flourish? When the environment is safe, candid conversation will permeate.

• Check your say/do ratio. Finally, when there is trust in what you say, there will be belief in what you will do. That starts with modeling a “say/do” ratio of one-to-one. You do what you say and say what you mean. When people have trust in the leader’s words and actions, they will mirror what the leader says and does. People are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated—nothing seems to be changing fast enough. Amid a sea of rhetoric, people are tired of words—they’re looking for action. We all must “be the change” we want to see in others. 

To lead is to forge an emotional connection with others on a very real and human level. Think and act like a shepherd: occasionally in front, sometimes beside but mostly behind—every step of the way.

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