Vulnerability is a key skill for Conscious Leaders

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- By Stephane Leblanc

As a masculine leader working as a leader of operations, I learned when I was a younger leader in a large international manufacturing company that I had to be tough. These were the times when managers swore, yelled and banged on tables during production meetings. As I wanted to fit in and rise up the organization, I learned to be tough. I did not yell or swore so much but I was very focused on results and not so much on people. I had learned from the senior operations leaders that a leader cannot show his vulnerability as this would be a sign of weakness.

As I was a very effective leader, I moved up the ranks to become General Manager of a business unit with 700 people. Then one day a new Vice President and General Manager came in as my boss. After 3 months only, he gave me a bad performance review. This was not based on his own experience but on the feedback he received from other managers about my way of being a leader.

I was shocked by such feedback as I always delivered great results. I quickly learned that his constructive criticism towards me was not based on my results but more on my approach with people. As I was still very much stuck in my ego, I refused the feedback.  A week later, he invited me to lunch and explained that he was assessing me as a future Vice President and that unless I transformed this part of my leadership, I would not access a higher position in the organization.

This happened twelve years ago and I am blessed it happened as this was the catalyst for a wonderful journey of personal transformation in which I discovered and embraced conscious leadership. When I first received and accepted the feedback, I was not sure as to what I should do exactly to transform myself.  But as the saying goes: "When the student is ready, the teacher appears", and this was certainly true with me

Vulnerability is the ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature; the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not. - David Whyte

Then one day a few years ago, something special happened to make me discover the power of vulnerability. I was named Vice President of a struggling business unit and I was tasked to turn it around. This was my first Vice President position and I discovered that turning around this organization was going to be a very daunting task ad it was very clear that if I failed, it would be the end of my career in that organization. 

Several months after I came in the position, I was leading a leadership retreat with my senior leadership team and every one was doing their check-in, telling everyone how they were doing.I spoke last and as soon as I started to speak, I started crying as I started to tell my team how my 8 years old son had failed his 3rd grade math exam the day before.

I had been under tremendous pressure as the most senior leader of this struggling business unit, working insane hours, providing extraordinary efforts and doing my best to show resilience and confidence to my team. The products we were building were always delivered late and were not meeting the quality expectations of the customers. As we were building luxury business jets, our business unit was supposed to be the flagship of the company, and we were under intense scrutiny from senior management all the way the CEO and the Chairman.

My boss, my family, my customers were all unhappy with me and I was really wondering how I would make my life work. My son failing his math exam was the straw that broke the camel's back. I felt I could not do anything right in my life and I was not worthy.

A senior executive crying in front of his team could be seen as a sign of weakness. But in reality it was an act of courage and vulnerability and it was a very strong catalyst to bring our team cohesiveness and intimacy to the next level. Many members of my leadership team were also struggling in their leadership as this was clearly the toughest assignment they had faced in their career and me being vulnerable gave them the right to also be vulnerable and share their concerns openly.  This allowed us to come together as a united team, as a tight knit family. 

Out of your vulnerability will come your strength. - Sigmund Freud

By being vulnerable towards each other, we were able to share as a team the tremendous pressure we were under. We were able to develop a high performance leadership team and enrol all our leaders and employees in the transformation of our organization and after only 22 months, we had achieved a major turnaround which was quite an accomplishment as this unit had been struggling for 10 years.

I have since embraced vulnerability as a key skill in my leadership and I believe it is an essential skill for Conscious Leaders as it shows those we lead that we are human and that we are not perfect. It also creates a space for others to be human and who they really are without having to pretend all the time that everything is fine.

There is an interesting story about vulnerability from Washington during the secession war in the US. Because the government did not have enough money, it had stopped paying the officers and soldiers of the army. In the middle of the war, the generals wanted to go on strike and called for a meeting with President Washington.

Washington came to meet them in a church one night and he gave them a prepared speech about how much the government needed their help and he reminded them of their patriotic duty. Unfortunately, this prepared speech did not do the job and the generals were still unhappy. Then Washington took a hand written speech out of his pocket and as it was late and dark, he could not see well. So he took a pair of glasses out of his pocket and put them on. It was the first time anyone had seen Washington wear such glasses in public and the generals were stunned.

Washington then proceeded to read this handwritten speech and talked from his heart. He told them:''Men, this war has crippled me. I can barely see anymore. I am now an old man. I need your help to save the future of our country."

This act of vulnerability from Washington touched the generals and they listened to his speech with an open heart and decided to follow Washington's lead and the rest is history.

Embracing vulnerability will not make you a weak leader. To the contrary, it will make you a human leader and most people prefer to follow a leader who is human than a leader who looks perfect.

Vulnerability will allow you to step into your power.

Vulnerability help you become a Conscious Leader.