“My truth is that 2019 was the best year of my career, I travelled to 19 countries delivering key notes to executives and business leaders on the topic of effective leadership. I flew business class, stayed in some of the finest hotels in the world, and best of all ended the year with a family holiday in the Swiss Alps where we had a white Christmas
“My deeper truth is that I’m exhausted and run down, staying away from home has left me feeling depressed and lonely. My wife’s health deteriorated after the radiation treatment and she is dependent on painkillers to get through the day. Our holiday did not bring us closer and was filled with periods of long silences. I can’t possibly do another year like 2019.”
Our workshop facilitator had just introduced himself to me and five other CEO’s who had signed up for a leadership development programme a few months earlier. We looked at each other awkwardly after this introduction wondering whether we were at the right workshop.
“We have three realities whenever we engage with others. The Three Realities of the Interpersonal Cycle*. Each of us has our own reality (our deeper truth) and our common truth we share with the world. These three realities, my deeper truth, our common truth and your deeper truth, affect how we communicate, what people hear, see and feel and ultimately our effectiveness as leaders.” His uncomfortable introduction now made sense.
The facilitator is a respected global authority on leadership development and has what looks like a perfect life, yet his deeper truth revealed a vulnerability and pain that I never suspected yet could immediately resonate with. He explained how we express our needs and motives in behaviours, both verbal and non-verbal, through a filter of what looks and sounds ‘right’ to reinforce an image of what we want the world to see. This safe place of common truth means we do not get into a place of deeper truth.
“What did you think needs to be in place before I could open up to you?” he asked. “Trust ! I need to trust that there is non-judgement, deep listening and empathy for my deeper truth. And what happened to you when you heard my deeper truth?” I had immediately felt that I could be more open, more vulnerable and take more risk in speaking about some of the things I was struggling with. It was clear that sharing his deeper truth had opened up a much deeper level of engagement in this group of tough business leaders.
The next four hours were focussed on our businesses and the leadership challenges we face (the businesses included some of the largest property development, pharma, private equity, and agricultural businesses in Africa). What was noticeable was that the discussions took place at a much deeper level of transparency and emotional candour. The insights that emerged were profound and showed what vulnerability and the resulting trust and openness could birth.
This experience made me question whether vulnerability is really an effective leadership quality.
In a survey of thousands of articles and papers on the subject of leadership, Officevibe , developers of leadership and management software tools listed their findings of the Top 10 Leadership Skills & Qualities of great leaders, Surprisingly, after ‘Create a Communication-Friendly Environment’, the number two skill was listed as ‘Be Vulnerable and Build Trust’. The second most important quality and skill of a great leader is being vulnerable?
Brene Brown who has dedicated 30 years of her life studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and is a research professor at the University of Houston and author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers says “Vulnerability is the best measure of courage.”
The penny dropped. To be vulnerable takes courage. That’s what happened in the CEO workshop. Each leader took a leap of faith, the courage, to be vulnerable. The resultant level of shared trust and transparent engagement was profound. We all experienced the power of vulnerability.
There is no doubt that being a leader requires courage. Leading a business in South Africa is not for the faint hearted and requires huge amounts of courage to get up and go again and again in the face of the challenges facing us. The idea that vulnerability (and the courage to be vulnerable) is a super-power, and as Brown puts it “… is the source of hope”, means it may just be the ‘next big thing’ in leadership enhancement.
This is particularly relevant in South Africa where the trust deficit between our leaders and ‘followers’ (citizens) has been widening over the last decade. It is certainly relevant when one hears the trust deficit and lack of transparency play out in the many board rooms of our public and private institutions. Perhaps the courage to be vulnerable is the courage we should be looking for in our leaders. Not to crucify them for being less than perfect, but to allow trust and hope to be rebuilt.
My truth is I want to see our leaders be more vulnerable and transparent with us so that collectively we can face up to and deal with our challenges.
My deeper truth is that I am afraid to be vulnerable and I hope to find the courage to go there too.
*Stanford Graduate School of Business