Even good leaders get stuck from time to time. Sometimes a period of growth is followed by unfamiliar peaks and valleys. The integration of a promising acquisition stalls for no obvious set of reasons. Whatever the cause there’s often an old-school belief that leaders are people who have all the answers. When these answers don’t seem to work, organizational performance can drift sideways.
Drawing on decades of experience as entrepreneurs and advisors to scores of companies, Barry Kaplan and Jeffrey Manchester contend that if vulnerability and authenticity are not in evidence, senior team members and employees often will feel disconnected. The real secret to unleashing power for leaders, teams and organizations lies in vulnerability, they argue. The more that leaders open their hearts, reveal their fears and show their authentic selves, the deeper the connections among team members will be, and the more the team will achieve.
Vulnerable and powerful? From a traditional set of management beliefs, this is an oxymoron and cannot be possible. But as Kaplan and Manchester maintain in their book, “The Power of Vulnerability,” there is a limit to how far one’s power as a leader can take one when he or she leads solely from the strength of one’s authority and intellect.
Employees and senior team managers who operate in this environment just go through the motions, and while they cooperate with others as necessary, their objective is simply to complete the task. They hold back from contributing their true potential. “The remedy for complacency lies in leaders being willing to step back, move over and invite others to lead by “stepping into their power.” Leaders must give permission to each team member to bring to life the highest and best use of his or her time and talent. The leader’s focus can then shift from being the person with all the answers to ensuring that everyone’s voice is in the discussion.”
Don Gulbrandsen, founder and chairman of Gulbrandsen Co., a maker and distributor of chemicals and intermediates for the chemical industry, wanted to break through the performance plateau he felt was holding his company back. “To access my full power,” he informed Barry Kaplan, his coach, I need to look inside my heart to discover where I can connect my message to my people.”
He developed a program of off-site meetings that included external thought leaders where his senior team could brainstorm ideas. He decided to step back and allow participants to explore solutions. He remained the ultimate decision maker, but encouraged others to assert control of selected initiatives. He discovered that the team’s performance compared to its potential is directly related to the depth of connection among its members. An outcome was that the company’s growth soon moved into double digits.
Barry Connors, who ran a Florida-based auction business that bought and sold vehicles, was similarly stymied. In 2009, his company hit a wall during the Great Recession where he was advised either to close the company or lay off most of its workforce to survive. Instead of doing either, he held a town meeting where he laid bare the difficulty he faced as a leader and asked for everyone’s help and ideas to get through the challenges. By asking the team to step into his role, he was able to tap into people’s ideas for saving money and streamlining the operation in ways that allowed the firm to get through the worst period in the young company’s history.
Another example of a little vulnerability going a long way is a mid-size manufacturer whose private equity parent hired a new CEO to replace its founder. The new CEO was a seasoned business technologist with a track record of leading growth in relatively short time frames. The founder was a passionate entrepreneur who had treated his team like family. The new CEO presented his plan for growth in his usual directive style that worked so well for him in the past. A quarter into his first term the lead partner in the private equity parent firm called Kaplan complaining that the performance metrics were off and that the new CEO wasn’t connecting to the senior management team. Kaplan and Manchester spoke with the new CEO. He was a talented electrical engineer who score low on empathy in his 360 surveys, the polar opposite of his predecessor. In the past he had received coaching to help him connect with team members, but this deficit did not hamper his success record. He was self-aware of this shortcoming, but found it difficult to change his default of being a lone ranger.
At an off-site meeting the CEO and team members were each asked to describe his or her self-limiting beliefs about their ability to achieve their responsibility. What ensued startled the group. The CEO began by saying that he struggled with confidence issues, and was always second-guessing whether or not he was worthy of the CEO role. Because of these worries he often stayed on the road to try to create new strategic partnerships and networks that could help the company rather than micro-manage in a way that might screw things up. People’s jaws dropped. Compassion in the room rose as his raw honesty became transparent. The CFO and VP of HR spoke to their fears that they lacked the experience necessary to give the team what it needed. Similarly the COO and VP of Sales & Marketing shared their internal fears. All of this openness led to a discussion about how the team could interact and support one another differently to help each overcome their self-limiting beliefs. A small step in sharing honest feelings in a vulnerable way opened the door to accepting the CEO as a regular guy. The head of technology later took a CEO’s aide into a private space to let him know that the experience had shifted his perspective of the CEO. He said, “I am now rooting for him to succeed, I actually like him more.”
A leader may determine that the risk is too great to share openly with one’s entire team at first, so you may start by sharing your thoughts with individuals you trust on the team as a sounding board. This can help to get feedback and input on how to approach the team in a way that can give one more confidence in taking the risk.