Being Vulnerable

A number of years ago, I learnt an important lesson about leadership. Many courses and business books talk about leadership attributes in terms of being strong, confident, assertive, driven, high energy, and focussed. I am sure you have heard or read this many times. What I learnt is the value of being humble, open, honest and vulnerable and how this builds really strong teams.

At the time, I was leading the PeopleSoft Canadian consulting team. Globally, we were investing in our top talent by sending them on leadership development programs. In Canada, we chose the Niagara Institute’s Leadership Development Program (LDP).

Sending my managers to LDP would be an expensive commitment of both time and cash, so I decided before investing that I would attend the course myself. To prepare for LDP, peers of the attendee have to complete a number of surveys, leadership questionnaires and a 360° review in order to provide feedback for the course. My request for people to complete these, combined with my absence from the office for a week, meant that my entire staff knew that I was attending a leadership development course. As a result, I made a decision to share with my team everything that I learnt about myself that week.

For anyone interested, the full text of the debriefing email that I sent my team is at the bottom of this blog along with some of the comments I received back.

What I learnt by sending this email was the power of being vulnerable. I opened myself up completely. I shared with them my strengths but more importantly my weaknesses. I told them what I was going to try to do to change my bad behaviors as a leader. I explained to them why I believe I behave the way I do at times (usually under pressure), which often included behavior that people found to be stubborn, dictatorial, intimidating or bullying.  Finally, I asked them for their help in pointing out to me when they felt I was behaving badly.

The result of opening up, exposing my weaknesses and making commitments to change built a stronger, more loyal, better performing Canadian management team. While it is difficult to quantify its contribution to the success of the Canadian consulting practice, I feel it was an important factor. In 2004, when I was asked to lead the reorganization of the North American Consulting Resources team, one of the reasons given in choosing me to lead this change was the high morale and strong results of the Canadian team as compared to its US counterparts. I believe this directly stemmed from that event in 2002.

Jim Collins has a great section in Good to Great about Level 5 leaders and the need to be humble.  Based on my experience, when you are strong, assertive, driven and confident and get it wrong; people attack you. When you are open, honest, humble and vulnerable and get it wrong; people support you. And if you screw up as many times as I have, it helps to have lots of supporters 🙂

Here is the email I sent to my team after the course in 2002:

About 2 months ago, I asked a number of my peers, my direct reports, my boss and others to invest some time on my behalf. Their task was to complete either 1 or 2 pieces of survey feedback for my program at the Niagara Institute. The purpose of the effort was to give me the tools to become a better leader.

I have just finished the week long program and wanted to give you some feedback on what I gained out of the week. Just to put my comments in context, the week involved:

On the whole, the feedback I received, both from my surveys from work and from my peers in class, was very complimentary and reinforced that many of my traits, attributes, practices and habits are consistent with the profile of a good leader. There were a few surprises, and a few already known confirmations of less desirable behaviours. From these, my executive coach and I have distilled out a list of actions that I am going to try and put in place to change these areas…

Specifically, the above pointed out the following:

So now, what am I going to do to try and change this? From the initial absorption of the data this week, I have developed a preliminary plan. In the coming weeks, I hope you will see the following behaviours changes

What am I asking from each of you? Going forward, I need your help in the following areas:

Finally, many of you have participated in a Myers Briggs exercise with me in the past so I think you will find this interesting. For those of you who may not understand the language of Myers-Briggs, it is a personality type indicator based on four axis, “Extraverted-Introverted”, “Sensing-Intuitive”, “Thinking-Feeling”, and “Judging-Perceiving”, that can characterize a person into one of 16 personality quadrants.

In my business career, this is the 5th Myers-Briggs that I have completed. Prior to this time, I have always been an INTJ (Introverted-Intuitive-Thinking-Judging). This time, I scored ISTJ. During the week, everyone became convinced that this was wrong. There were those who were convinced that I was an “E” (actually on the Myers Briggs subscales, I am very Gregarious which is why I outwardly look like an “E”). One of the course facilitators, himself a PhD in Psychology, became convinced that I am an INTJ but my “N” subscales are bi-polar, heavy weighted towards Concrete (the need for lots of data, and a very “S” attribute) but also very heavy towards Imaginative and Inferential (very “N” traits). When I met with my coach, she was convinced that I was an INFJ (my name is Pete Smith, and I am a Feeler) even though my T score was 27 but again, my subscales are bi-polar, heavy weighting towards “S” traits of Logical and Questioning and equally heavy weighting on Compassionate and Accepting, definite “F” traits. And finally, my “J” is heavy on Systematic but also contains heavy Emergent (the opposite of Methodical). Her conclusion after meeting with me is that I freely move back and forth between Sensing-Intuitive and Thinking-Feeling.

So I have concluded that I am a schizophrenic closet feeler but won’t admit it, who bounces back and forth regularly between ISTJ, INFJ and INTJ, sometimes within the same sentence or thought.

And here are the responses I received back:

“Wow – sharing your personal feelings with others delivers a strong leadership trait and the feeling that you are comfortable with yourself.”

“I truly enjoyed reading your email.  I think one of the best traits of good leader is to be open, and vulnerable.  Exposing yourself in my opinion creates a sense of dignity.  I do hope you make slight adjustments, not radical ones.  My reason is, I always get value add from your involvement. Yes, you can cause some pain along the way, but I rely on that part.  I never feel bullied, and I do find your advice to me is usually challenging and supportive.”

“I think this kind of sharing is great.  It’s funny I always have people ask me why I feel comfortable standing up to you on group calls, etc.  My answer is always because you like being challenged! I really appreciate our relationship and I always feel ok bringing up tough issues with you.”

“I among others appreciate the feedback: I would agree with your self assessment (strengths and challenges; although the schizophrenic closet feeler is well beyond the scope of my assessment abilities). Although it appeared you were trying to manage some of your behaviors, Friday’s conference call was a good example of how you can be intimidating and make it difficult for people who do not have high confidence and strong personalities to contribute in an open, honest manner.  Having taken three Myers Briggs 360 degree analysis myself I know how easy it is to identify some of the areas we want to change but how difficult it is to make those changes lasting and meaningful.”

“Maybe we should get you a mood ring for Christmas… that way we will know if you are an N/S or T/F… at least the I/J are constants.”

“Wow Pete – What a note!  Those that, in the past, have not found you ‘open, honest, approachable, (&) human’, should now, after reading that.  It takes both strength & humility to send a note/commitment like that to your team. It was wonderful to read.”

“Great message Pete. Thanks for being so open and putting the info out there. That is a tough thing to do and I believe everyone can appreciate you more for doing that. I agree with much of this and would be pleased to discuss further. Let’s get out and do lunch together and discuss!”

© 2012 Meaford Group

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