Few myths are as universal as the belief that leaders should be tough and confident. At least that was the case before the Covid-19 pandemic, which exposed many weaknesses of strong, dominant leaders and highlighted the superiority of those who had the courage to show their weaknesses.
Think, for example, of how Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, or Jair Bolsonaro denied the virus. They have shown arrogance, and bravado, and have undermined mask-wearing or social distancing policies, putting their people at risk. Contrast this with the honest and data-driven approach of Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, or Sanna Marin. This approach has saved thousands of lives and mitigated economic losses in Germany, New Zealand, and Finland, respectively.
People in companies of all kinds are better off when their leaders demonstrate wisdom, honesty, and sensitivity to the needs of others in making bold, potentially unpopular decisions. When they focus on helping the organization grow rather than how they present themselves, and certainly not on creating a false image of being invincible that actually hurts people.
In a complex and uncertain world of VUCA that requires constant learning and agility, the most flexible leaders are those who are aware of their limitations, have the necessary humility to develop themselves and their team members' potential, and are brave and curious enough to create sincere relationships with others.
They develop thanks to building integrative team climates based on the employee's psychological safety. They also encourage constructive criticism and open expression of their opinion.
In Brief - What is Vulnerability
Brené Brown, a recognized world authority on sensitivity and author of numerous books on
about it, in her book "Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead" writes:
"Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences."
Brené also defines three main components of vulnerability: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
Myths and Misconceptions About Vulnerability
Vulnerability is weakness
Brene Brown also says, "To feel is to be vulnerable." So while we think that vulnerability is a weakness, we also think that feeling emotions is a weakness. In fact, as Brene Brown writes, "Vulnerability sounds like the truth, and we feel courage." In other words, when you're genuine, you don't feel weak. On the contrary.
Some people do not or cannot experience vulnerability
Virtually everyone feels helpless at times. "Life is vulnerable," writes Brown. Being vulnerable is not a choice we have to make. Rather, the choice is about how we respond when we are touched by the elements of vulnerability: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. In these situations, many of us respond incorrectly by avoiding or suppressing our sensitivity.
Vulnerability means revealing some of your secrets
Some of us are hesitant to show our helplessness because we assume it means revealing our "secrets." We assume that being helpless means pouring our hearts out to strangers and, as Brene Brown put it, "allowing it all."
But Brene also says that "vulnerability includes boundaries and trust." "Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. It takes courage to be helpless."
Another myth about vulnerability: you can go alone
None of us, recognizing our occasional helplessness, should pretend to be able to "go alone". When we ask others, "Can you help me with this? What are your thoughts on this? Do you want to work on this with me?" or "I'm not sure what we should do here" - we express our weaknesses in a bold and positive way.
The Need for Sensitive Leaders
In today's business world, employees, shareholders, and customers expect CEOs to be honest and transparent. They are looking for leaders who are not only confident but also trustworthy.
However, the latest results of the Edelman Trust Barometer show that trust in business leaders is declining. Combined with this worrying trend and the concomitant prevalence of corporate misconduct, value destruction, and toxic corporate cultures, top executives can earn up to 271 times more than the average employee.
In business, vulnerability has been and is commonly seen as a weakness. And the media headlines put pressure on and constantly encourage companies to hide their vulnerabilities.
To shake the image of the selfish CEO who knows it all and has nothing to lose, business leaders need to start being honest about their weaknesses—their own and those of their partners. And about the company's sensitivity to losses or errors. If CEOs continue to act as if they have nothing to lose or continue to act only in their own interests, they will fail to regain trust.
What Sensitive Leaders Do Differently
Being sensitive in the workplace doesn't mean you go around with a box of tissues and share your deepest, most personal secrets with everyone. So how do sensitive leaders behave in the work environment?
They accept the fact that vulnerability is a sign of strength
Being vulnerable is not a bad thing and it does not make us weak. In fact, it makes us better leaders because we stop wasting energy masking what we don't think other people should see. And above all, it allows you to show your authentic self. By accepting vulnerability as a natural thing, we stop worrying about our every response and accept that it's okay to make mistakes.
They admit mistakes
We all make mistakes, especially as leaders. The more we are willing to admit our mistakes (not making excuses, not pointing the finger at others, or avoiding responsibility), the more others trust us and want to follow our example.
Taking responsibility, apologizing, and fixing the mistakes we make is not always easy. But it is essential that we gain real credibility with those around us.
They don't take themselves too seriously
It's important that we have a sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously - which many of us do, especially as a leader. "Do you have any idea how important my work is?" We need to laugh at ourselves, notice when we get too serious and have enough self-awareness to maintain a healthy perspective.
They ask for and receive help from others
As leaders, most of us enjoy helping others, but we often struggle to ask for and receive help. Asking for help can be perceived, especially by us, as an admission of weakness or an admission that we are unable to do something. However, we all need help and support from time to time – and in some cases, we need a lot of it. Being a leader who is comfortable enough with themselves and the people around them to admit they don't know something, can't do something, or simply needs help to achieve something, is not a sign of weakness. It is both a sign of strength and an opportunity to genuinely empower others.
Benefits of Being a Sensitive Leader
Reducing tension and stress at work.
The level of stress is significantly lowered thanks to openness to free discussion of topics previously considered controversial or inconvenient.
Increasing the flow of ideas, creativity, and innovation.
By admitting that they don't have all the answers, sensitive leaders allow others to contribute ideas and criticism. And by admitting their mistakes, leaders allow others to make mistakes and talk about them. Sensitive leaders who are able to admit that they have made bad decisions encourage subordinates to take risks or make constructive suggestions through their example.
Reducing employee turnover thanks to emotional bonding.
Many studies on the workplace indicate that the emotional connection to the workplace is a factor in whether people stay or look for work elsewhere. Open, honest, and genuine leadership greatly increases the likelihood that employees at all levels will emotionally connect with the organization - if they feel connected to their leaders.
What is the Future of Servant Leadership?
Now more than ever, the world needs leaders who are sensitive, empathetic, and compassionate. We are talking about servant leaders who put the interests of others and the world first. We've seen how other types of leadership - calculating, narcissistic (and sometimes psychopathic), and toxic - have created chaos and destruction. Time for a change.
But given the current situation, and thinking that your colleagues or employees are well suited to the new style of servant leadership, we are only halfway there.
Finding the right talent, best suited to the role and culture of your organization, can be a very demanding task. Now, for example, it is especially important to make sure that your managers or your team are well prepared to work remotely and collaborate from different locations.
This requires a deep understanding of their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, interests, work styles, and more.