Embracing vulnerability boosts credibility

There’s a human inside every manager, writes Patrick Woodman

As a leader, how do you think of yourself? How do you want others to see you? Confident. Dynamic. Transformational. Strategic? All of those, perhaps. Where does ‘human’ fit in the list?

Being human has often been seen as the precise opposite of what’s expected of managers and leaders. We’re seen as rational decision-makers, allocators of resource. As shapers and executors of strategy. As providers of vision and direction. But rarely as fully human, with all the frailty, fallibility and emotional baggage – and wonderful creative potential – that brings.

Happily, that has started to change. One of my favourite books of the last few years, and CMI’s Management Book of the Year in 2015, was Not Knowing by Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza. (Their follow-up, Not Doing, appeared earlier this year.)

Framed as the way to turn uncertainty into opportunity, it made the vital point that not knowing all the answers isn’t only okay – it’s positively inevitable. Better to come to terms with that fact, be prepared to admit it, and to understand how to get answers where they’re available – or how to make decisions where answers are impossible. Without that approach, managers will be trapped by an endless hunt for robust data and conclusive insights.

In an ever-more data-rich world, being prepared to say “we don’t know” is an important principle for business agility, and one leaders would do well to learn early.

Of course, some leaders will say that their credibility hinges on being the person who knows – who has a plan and the answers to others’ questions. Saying you don’t know can be distinctly uncomfortable. But pretending to know is bluster, and is corrosive of trust and confidence. Handled right, credibility can be enhanced by admitting to not knowing.

Admitting vulnerability and fallibility is another human quality that sits outside the traditional leadership handbook. Yet one recent report highlighted the lack of trust middle managers feel in their senior leaders due to a perceived lack of transparency. What do middle managers want? They want leaders to share what they’re thinking – and to admit to mistakes. For too many, though, that admission of failure and vulnerability remains a deeply uncomfortable prospect.

It’s vital that leaders de-stigmatize failure: both to help people be more resilient and to ensure that fear of failure doesn’t stifle innovation. It’s also crucial for our wellbeing. If we can’t admit vulnerability, we’re stacking up the pressure on ourselves. It’s a mentality that represses problems and buries them deep. Managers and leaders can be particularly vulnerable: elevated to a position of responsibility, they can face significant pressure. Middle managers can feel caught between the demands of their teams and the expectations of those leading the organization, while senior leaders are just as prone to burnout and mental health challenges as anyone.

Yet mental health is still often second best to physical health-and-safety when it comes to employer action. In the UK, a campaign for employers to appoint mental health first-aiders alongside physical first-aiders – which are required by law – is gathering pace. It’s surely something that any employer serious about mental health should look at – to make sure that those suffering can access help quickly.

No manager should be shamed for admitting their limits. It’s time to let that humanity shine through.

––– Patrick Woodman is head of research and advocacy at the Chartered Management Institute