Oct 18

How many leaders do you know who 'fess up' to their vulnerabilities?

Posted: 15 October 2018

Neil Taylor, Vice Chair of Skills for Care and interim CEO of Langdon disability charity, considers whether leaders should admit they might feel vulnerable at times.

“Vulnerability sounds like the truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” (Brene Brown - Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms love, the way we Live, Parent and Lead)

Over the past year in my role as a social care leader, the one leadership quality I have begun to appreciate has been the ability to reveal my vulnerabilities in an open and meaningful manner. That is to say being willing and sufficiently confident to show how stressful situations have impacted upon me, being able to admit mistakes I have made and apologising for them and reflecting on the areas I need to improve upon with my peers and the people I manage.

In my experience, organisations, even the most ‘virtuous’ and ‘harmonious’, don’t tend to be able to cultivate a culture in which leaders feel sufficiently comfortable in showing their weaknesses – they have too much to lose. The risk of our weaknesses being exploited, our authority and status being undermined and our ability to exercise control and inspire confidence being compromised is too great.

In the face of ever increasing scrutiny and public accountability, all of which is for good reason, the inclination of most of us is to default to a more defensive position when having to respond to criticism. By not sharing our anxieties and concerns, it’s easier to manage our emotions, maintain control and avoid exposing ourselves when confronted with our own personal shortcomings. The expectations of us, and those we have of ourselves as leaders and managers, typically has been that to admit failure is a deficiency and that exhibiting own incompetence excuses others’ incompetence and contributes to a lowering of standards.

I’ve worked for many years with some of the best managers in social care and in an environment in which there has been a commitment over many years to 360-degree feedback as part of the performance review framework. However, it never quite operated at the level to which we aspired, mainly due to managers not feeling confident enough to give the relevant feedback to make the experience truly meaningful and beneficial. We spent time equipping managers to have courageous conversations, nevertheless it consistently proved a challenge to inspire people to give genuine and authentic feedback. I believe it was due to a culture in which giving feedback became a transactional activity in which if I was to give feedback then I should naturally expect to receive it in return. Since I was not capable of being open to my ‘vulnerabilities’ by receiving honest feedback I would be cautious in the feedback I gave.

In his excellent book ‘the Culture Code - The Secrets of highly successful groups’, Daniel Coyle devotes a chapter to the ‘Vulnerability Loop’ in which he provides various examples that illustrate the importance of demonstrating vulnerability as the most basic building block of cooperation and trust and the positive impact this has on relationships.

“The mechanism of cooperation can be summed up as follows: Exchanges of vulnerability which we naturally tend to avoid, are the pathway through which trusting cooperation is built.” (Daniel Coyle)

In the world of social care, we need to develop organisational cultures in which people are willing to report medication errors, engage in reflective practice discussions in which they can be open about how they’re not coping with a client’s challenging behaviour or feel confident to whistle-blow when they observe bad management or care practice. Our staff will not expose their own vulnerabilities if their managers are not confident to do the same - why should they? It’s a leadership imperative in the world of social care that we create values-based cultures in which the ability to demonstrate vulnerability is considered a virtue.

The ultimate test would be for me to articulate my vulnerabilities in this article but it would be foolhardy to do so on my LinkedIn profile wouldn’t it?