Why Is It Difficult For Some CEOs To Be Vulnerable?

Many of us have also seen magic happen on leadership teams when CEOs shift their view of being vulnerable from one of weakness to one of strength.For a host of reasons leadership teams often struggle to dialogue productively — challenge, debate and discuss their most important issues in a manner that progresses the issues and leaves minimal relational scars. On one end of the spectrum team members may like each other so much that they are reluctant to hurt each other’s’ feelings while on the other end team members are fearful of retaliation or being judged. In either case, CEOs play pivotal roles in improving a team’s ability to engage in productive dialogue. Skills like listening, giving and receiving feedback, and embracing different perspectives are essential to foster productive dialogue and CEOs must model these skills for them to become part of the fabric of their leadership teams.

Unfortunately, many CEOs fail to model these important skills because of an implicit assumption that leaders must be strong and all knowing. There is no doubt that leaders must be wise, contribute to setting direction, and help shape and model values but in today’s fast paced world no one person can have all of the answers or run an organization based on his/her wisdom alone. A critically important character trait for leading in today’s complex, information rich environment is humility. Those CEOs who can balance using their talents, ambition and experience with a true sense of reliance on others will naturally create environments where productive dialogue can thrive.

Below we discuss two important and interconnected components of building leadership teams with humility — vulnerability and feedback. Both require self-awareness or the ability of CEOs to have clarity on their values, passions and reactions and perhaps most importantly a keen understanding of how others view them. As we demonstrate below, without self-awareness it is impossible for CEOs to be vulnerable and give and receive feedback well.

Vulnerability

Brené Brown, an expert on social connection, conducted thousands of interviews to discover that vulnerability lies at the root of social connection. Vulnerability is the lifeblood of humility and can show up in many forms. When a CEO demonstrates that she is dependent on her teammates (‘can you help prepare me for this important meeting with a key donor’) she is showing vulnerability. When a CEO admits that she made a mistake (‘I set us up for failure when I forced us to commit to launch our new product in that time frame’) she is displaying vulnerability. When a leader reveals her humanness (‘I heard your daughter just got into college’) she is exhibiting vulnerability. When a leader is laser focused on mission and purpose rather than status and experience, she is demonstrating vulnerability.

Why is it difficult for some CEOs to be vulnerable? Arrogance, lack of confidence, and insecurity are what we refer to as vulnerability aggressors as they hold leaders back from relying on others and admitting mistakes. We all know leaders who rather than admitting a mistake will rationalize (‘I knew that was going to happen all along’) or deflect blame (‘if the board didn’t push us, we wouldn’t be in this position’). Many of us have also seen magic happen on leadership teams when CEOs shift their view of vulnerability from one of weakness to one of strength and courage—authentic relationships are developed, trust is strengthened, innovation and creativity emerge, and productive dialogue thrives.

Feedback

By default, CEOs who are good at giving and receiving feedback are humble leaders. Let’s start with the important skill of giving feedback or providing constructive input. In both instances many leaders start with a telling or knowing mindset (‘that’s not the way we should approach this problem’ or ‘yes, but we should handle it this way’) which has a natural tendency to put the receiver on the defensive or for the receiver to acquiesce. In his book Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein suggests that asking questions out of a sense of curiosity and genuine interest tends to strengthen relationships.[ii] This same logic can be applied to providing feedback. Rather than starting by telling, a CEO who provides feedback first by asking questions (‘tell me a bit more about how you think that might work’) is more likely to engage in a two-way discussion where he can more productively relay any observations or concerns.

The art of receiving feedback is perhaps the biggest opportunity CEOs have for modeling humility. Leadership team members breath a collective sigh of relief when they see their CEOs receive feedback with curiosity (‘please tell me more’) and an authentic willingness to listen and consider diverse perspectives (‘I’ve never really thought about it like that’) rather than with defensiveness or dismissiveness. It is in these instances that team members see their CEOs move from professional distance and reserve to leading with strength and courage. When team members see their leader receive feedback well the table is set for them to begin to shed their insecurities and vulnerability assumptions and open themselves up to genuinely hearing constructive input and points of view they may not have considered before.

On great leadership teams humility is ever present and is reflected in the dialogue and interactions. Team members possess a strong sense of self-awareness that enables them to actively listen, be curious about other perspectives, not have all of the answers, and be comfortable having to rely on others.

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