The Courage to be Vulnerable

Photo by Jörg Angeli on Unsplash

It’s been 3 weeks since I joined Culture Amp, and one of the striking things is how clearly the values of the company are articulated, discussed, embraced, and modelled by everyone in the company.

One of the four values is having the courage to be vulnerable. This value deeply resonates with me, and is one of the most important for a loving leader to embrace. It is the difference between wanting to hold the worth of others to the fullest degree and actually following through on it.

Bringing out the best in people

As a leader, the single most important part of your job is to bring out the best in the people in your team. Your goal should be to watch in awe as the wonderfully unique, special, talented people around you shine as they accomplish remarkable things. The full force of a tight-knit team on a mission is so much greater than anything you can muster on your own, no matter how skilled or strong you are.

The thing that fuels this kind of empowerment is love. The authentic unconditional love that holds every person to an infinite worth, regardless of any circumstance or attribute, and takes action on that recognition.

To be a leader that genuinely loves in this way requires you to be vulnerable. You need to do things and say things and make sacrifices that are in keeping with completely valuing each person. It takes courage. But it is so worth it for your team, for the results of your business, and for yourself.

Vulnerability in challenge

Many years ago I was leading a huge transformation project that was on the verge of seeming impossible. Even though there was great risk, all the way along I could see a path to the finish line. I had deep faith in the team and our ability to succeed in the mission, and I continually encouraged and helped people through all of the challenges.

But then as we approached the delivery date for this project, it got to the point where I started to doubt that we would make it. I could no longer genuinely see the path to the finish.

I was due to have a weekly all-hands meeting with the team on Monday morning, and I didn’t know what to do.

I could have stood up and tried to encourage and inspire people to find a way through that final month, but it would have been fake. I would have been saying and doing things that I didn’t believe deep down. And in doing so I would have stepped back from loving my team, because you are always honest with people you genuinely love.

So I took the path of vulnerability. I stood in front of 50 people in a room, stuttering and stammering, saying that I wasn’t sure any more if we would get to the finish line on time, asking what everyone thought we should do because I had no idea.

In the midst of my awkwardness, one of the engineers spoke up and said “You said that if the next 2 days don’t go extremely well, there’s no way we can make it. Why don’t we see what happens in the next 2 days”. I latched onto this suggestion like a drowning man grasping for a life preserver, and we left the meeting with that plan.

Your feelings aren’t always the reality

I left that meeting feeling very insecure. I felt like I had let my team down as their leader, and instead of being a calm confident presence I was stammering and incoherent. I felt that I had been leading them so far on a journey, but then just when they needed me the most I was giving them doubt. It felt like a real low-point in my leadership.

But then later that day I started to get feedback about the meeting. One of my leaders said “somehow that meeting this morning has really lifted everyone’s spirits”. Someone else thanked me for being so “real” in the meeting.

We went forward from that meeting, found out after the couple of days that we did need a bit more time, and ended up doing a soft release on our due date just to internal people, with our production release 2 weeks later. The project was a huge success for us as a team and as a business, and it lifted and inspired many people in other parts of the company.

When I look back with hindsight, I see that the meeting that I felt so bad about at the time was actually one of the best meetings I’d had as a leader. I was completely vulnerable with the team. I laid bare my heart, and shared all of my fears and uncertainties. And this acted to bring us all closer together for the better, rather than causing things to fall apart for the worse.

Entering my new job with vulnerability

When I started at Culture Amp, I had a different experience of vulnerability. For the first time in 22 years I was stepping into a new company in a new domain with a new team. What would that be like? Would I be able to adapt? How would I connect with everyone and come up to speed?

Fortunately for me, Culture Amp have a really amazing on boarding process, and it is abundantly clear that a lot of time has been spent thinking about how to being people into the company in a way that really supports the person.

From this position of safety and reassurance, I started reflecting on the best way for me to connect with everyone in my team. And then it struck me. I needed to have the courage to be vulnerable and share with everyone who I really am. I remembered a leader who I had recently hired in my previous company who had held an introduction session with the team, and decided that I would do this. I also resolved that in that session I would share the whole story of who I am, and not hold anything back.

Telling my story

The introduction session I had was really just telling my story. I talked through a journey from when I was a child through to now, highlighting key moments and changes along the way. I didn’t separate personal things and work things, but rather told the interleaved story of the progression of my life. I shared high points and special moments. I shared low points, such as my early doubts around my ability as a leader and my battle with chronic fatigue.

I shared things that are important in my life — my family, my involvement in my church and community, being physically active and taking on different kinds of endurance challenges. I shared my deep desire to see leaders leading from love, making workplaces all over the world safe places where people can truly thrive and achieve amazing things. And I shared the way I looked at my new role and the way I intended to approach it.

After that session, many people reached out to thank me for sharing my story so openly. And it leads to various different discussions that may not have happened otherwise. As is always the case when you are vulnerable, the risk taken is rewarded in ways not possible without having the courage to do it.

You have opportunity to be courageous today

All of us, whether in a leadership position or not, have opportunities to make a tangible difference to those around us today. And one of the most powerful ways we can do that is to have the courage to open our hearts to others.

Keep your eyes open and be aware. Every single person you interact with today is a special unique person, filled with gifts and talents, a one-of-a-kind that is irreplaceable and of priceless worth. What would it look like to convey somehow the amazing qualities you see in that person? What hopes, dreams, uncertainties, challenges are you facing that maybe sharing with this person will help you both?

Be aware, see what ideas come to mind, and then take the courageous step of acting on one of them today. And see what flows from your vulnerability.

Cheers,
Paul.

Love Your Team