Vulnerable leaders: Building strength by being humble

“If you are humble, you are no threat to anybody. Some behave in a way that dominates others. That’s a mistake. If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important—and you do that by being genuine and humble. You know that other people have qualities that may be better than your own. Let them express them.”  Nelson Mandela

With the death of Nelson Mandela late in 2013, the world lost a great leader.

In the many thousands of obituary words written in the days that followed, one word was mentioned more than any other: humility.

Often the image of a leader is a figure of strength – all-powerful and all-knowing – but the world’s respect for Mandela’s style of leadership shows that a balance of confidence and humility can be even stronger.

Yet one of the greatest challenges many leaders struggle with is accepting (and disclosing) their own vulnerabilities. Admitting that you are wrong – or that you alone do not have all the answers – takes genuine courage.

Power and vulnerability

climber280Showing vulnerability does not detract from a leader’s capacity to inspireThe rate of change and the scale of growth in Asia over the next decade will demand a new generation of leaders who are not only skilled and knowledgeable, but are also capable of adapting nimbly to challenges in this fast-changing landscape.

It’s a new world we are entering, and one that will demand a more open, inclusive and vulnerable leadership style.

Mandela’s approach to leadership is one that Singapore corporates would do well to emulate. Many, however, remain wedded to the traditional hierarchical structure, distinguished by the high “power distance” between omnipotent leaders and their followers.

In such an environment, any leader confessing to a lack of knowledge or revealing any uncertainty to a subordinate would cause great discomfort to all parties.

There is an expectation that leaders should conceal their feelings and concerns, and not expose their weaknesses to their followers. After all, a strong leader should always be – well – strong, surely?

Not so, says the latest management thinking from Brene Brown. In fact, you can’t be a truly transformational leader without humility and a willingness to express vulnerability.

Think of a parent who is under pressure at work and rather short-tempered at home. When the child asks if something is wrong, the authoritarian parent would say, ‘Everything is fine’. The child learns nothing and perhaps continues to worry.

The strongest leaders in business are focused on constantly learning and strengthening their weaknesses

A more open parent might instead say, ‘I’m out of my depth with a new project at work, and I am working hard on a solution. I’m just a bit distracted at the moment.’

With the second approach, the child is shown the parent’s vulnerability but is also given confidence that the problem will be solved. The second parent is also modeling a healthy approach to dealing with life – and work’s – inevitable challenges.

Indeed, showing vulnerability does not detract from a leader’s capacity to inspire people, but rather augments it.

As a leader, role modeling that life is an experiment, freely admitting your own shortcomings, and learning from your mistakes all create space for others to do the same.

It’s one of the ways we move forward and grow as individuals, and also as workers, no matter our position in the pecking order.

Constant learning

Critically, expressing vulnerability does not equate to being weak or lacking ambition.

leader280Strong leaders balance confidence with humilityIndeed, the strongest leaders in business are focused on constantly learning and strengthening their weaknesses.

No one is born with all the answers, and there is nothing wrong with admitting that there is always more to be learned.

Giving oneself (and employees) the freedom to say “I don’t know, but I will find out” may be all the more important in many parts of Asia, where the risk is that subordinates will defer to a superior’s decisive opinion and fail to develop their own capabilities.

It’s also important to allow subordinates to make their own decisions and to analyse what went right – or wrong – with the final outcome.

And while it may be tempting for a leader to step in and take over this process, the deepest learning occurs when people make their own decisions and see the consequences for themselves.

The real challenge lies in fostering a culture that embraces learning from failure. This seems particularly difficult in Asia, where issues of ‘face’ and fear of ‘failure’ have been widely reported, but is less prevalent in the West.

However, the cultural lines are already starting to blur as more students from Singapore pursue their education overseas, and put their experiences there into practice in the workplace when back at home.

So what can tomorrow’s leaders learn from Nelson Mandela?

Be genuine, be humble, embrace your vulnerability and get up there and give it your best shot.

Learn from others, learn from your failures, and celebrate your successes with humility. It all goes to make you more human – and better equipped for tomorrow’s leadership challenges.

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