There’s been a change in the way work culture functions. The task master bosses of the past are no longer the model for the type of management or leadership that people respect or respond to. For the longest time, the image of leadership that held sway was that of the invincible man.
It was not possible to admit that you didn’t know the answer to a question, or take blame for an error. Under no circumstances could you ever be perceived of as weak.
Vulnerability is like dying — you may as well not even exist if you reveal this other side of you. As though vultures are circling and at any moment, they will descend in force at the first sign of blood.
Everything is changing, and for the better, but the old notions of what makes power and authority are still at war with the present. Friction exists between these schools of thought as clashing generations of management and leadership are attempting to weather the sea change in how our relationships at work determine culture.
There will always be a need for the strong, for the person who can do the heavy lifting when it is needed and necessary. But no longer are you required to be invincible, to be a machine.
This old idea of how to conduct oneself at work is also rooted in archetypal ideas of what a man should be, further creating a sense of vulnerability as being a feminine quality that should be punished for having the audacity to exist in what was traditionally a male space.
This was demonstrated to me by a friend of mine, Bill, an agency marketer who came to me, frustrated over his relationship with his supervisor. He was upset because he could not seem to earn this man’s approval no matter how hard he tried. He did everything perfectly, presented himself with grace and intelligence, was likeable and charming and well loved by everyone. Yet this was not enough to earn his supervisor’s approval.
This would prove to be a fatal flaw in their relationship, leading up to Bill’s lay off. Once Bill had to leave his job, he was replaced by, in his opinion, a less capable man, someone with less intelligence and grit.
When it came time to give an important presentation to the C-suite, Bill’s replacement failed to do so. His replacement dragged his feet until the last minute, and would not take the stage to give the presentation. Instead, he admitted to the supervisor that he was afflicted with stage fright and could not bring himself to get in front of the group to speak.
Instead of punishing Bill’s replacement for what Bill felt was an unacceptable failure, the supervisor told Bill’s replacement that he would do the presentation himself, and from then on he wouldn’t have to worry about it.
When Bill heard what had happened, he could not understand why his less talented replacement had earned the support of the supervisor where he had not, despite years of trying. All Bill had gotten for his pains was micro-management and a cold feeling of dislike from the other man.
“It’s because he was vulnerable,” I explained. “Your perfection was intimidating. Because you couldn’t be vulnerable, he saw you as a competitor. Without that vulnerability, you couldn’t connect to him. But your replacement came forward to admit a very personal fear, and your supervisor did the right thing — he stepped in to support him. But because you were so keen on impressing him, you never gave him the chance to earn your respect. You never gave him the chance to function as a leader and support you.”
Bill could not understand it. This failure to understand the role vulnerability plays in our relationships on a career level and a personal level would slowly create problems for him in other areas.
In his desire to live up to a high standard, he forgot that others around him wanted the chance to be a part of his talents and his gifts. But he was so focused on being perfect and presenting as the most intelligent person in the room, there could no interchange, no real connection.
This is the fatal flaw of the invincible, and what is often thought of as traditional male stereotypes; in an effort to do anything but appear weak, they become distant and impenetrable. We can only view them from afar, like mythological gods in a fairy tale, untouchable. And because we can never get close enough to them, any chance of human connection is effectively lost.
Our leadership suffers if we are not willing to open up and allow members of the team to share the power of strength.
Even puppies will roll over on their back and expose the softest part of themselves — their bellies — and we reward them for this trust with love.
We’re learning that to be vulnerable is a strength. Being vulnerable is saying that we are so strong, we don’t have to worry about displaying weakness. Being vulnerable is to admit we are resilient within ourselves. Being vulnerable means we are not afraid of the repercussions of creating trust with those we are vulnerable with.
In an effort to appear anything but weak, we’ve lost the ability to know how vulnerability is an important component of how we interrelate. But vulnerability has never been a venture for the weak. Vulnerability takes guts — and these days, everyone in the room knows it.