Are You Becoming a More Vulnerable Leader?

Here at SAMC, we are watching a situation in which a business leader is trying to transform an organization that has really been allowed to wallow for a long time. Staff has been coming to work and doing a job but not much has been happening to either inspire or frighten them.

But now, with new leadership and a fast-changing market, they are threatened. While trying to mobilize and motivate his employees, the new CEO is finding that they are throwing up the classic four hurdles of those who know intellectually that they have to change but really don’t know how—or even if they want to.

The four hurdles (and you may have seem them yourself) are: 

  1. The cognitive one where they claim they really don’t know what the leader is talking about.
  2. The motivational excuse where they just really don’t want to put any effort into changing.
  3. The resource resistance where they blame the slow pace of change on not having the resources.
  4. The politico hurdle where they are waiting to see what others are going to do before they risk their own necks embracing the leader’s initiatives.

The new leadership team is responding with a wonderful mix of business acumen, personal strength and at times, softer concerns. They are showing that they are vulnerable, caring and concerned but also strong and determined to help this organization adapt, or die. Watching this careful dance made us realize that the growing body of research and literature about the success of a vulnerable leader was playing out right before us. 

Strong leaders are now becoming human leaders 

Augusto Giacoman has written a very good article in Strategy + Business on the strength of vulnerable leaders and the growing body of studies that is capturing how effective leaders who manage all types of companies, from global corporations to smaller organizations, are becoming more effective when they are self-effacing, humble, vulnerable and open about their weaknesses, and honest about their “humanness.” 

Similarly, as Emma Seppala discussed in this 2014 Harvard Business Review article, leaders who share their personal challenges, are authentic in their expressed feelings and enable their teams to see them as real “people” are getting performance results that are astonishing. What’s more, they are able to mobilize employees to heights that others who have been more controlling have not been able to achieve. Indeed, the authentic leader seems to build bonds that increase people’s motivation and initiative, leading to better performance. 

Dudley Slater discusses this same leadership style in one of our podcasts about fusion leadership, as does Tanya Hall in our podcast interview with her, “How a Woman CEO Built a Great Publishing Business.”

Why are we watching this trend as leaders are changing? 

Is it a conscious, deliberate change in how leaders engage with others to get them to follow them? Or is it that the generations have changed? Are the Gen Ys, those 30-something Millennials, different kinds of followers and leaders? Or is our society and its culture creating an environment where the old top-down hierarchies are morphing into networks that enable more level playing fields where individuals expect to be empowered, pointed in a direction and encouraged, then coached and supported as they run their ball down a field with others—i.e., their soccer field? 

It is in part, all of these, combining into a new way in which people are engaging in groups. They have, after all, grown up digital, playing video games and searching online for whatever they need to know. They’re also heavily into sports like soccer that doesn’t have quarterbacks but more or less equal teammates. 

On top of that, we have a fast-changing environment where the users of new software, online solutions and new business models are as much about the transformation as the developers. 

One of my favorite quotes on the subject is from Ginni Rometty, the 9th President of IBM, who said it quite well in this 2014 interview in Fortune. Charged with leading that organization forward so it could remain agile and adaptive in rapidly changing times, she commented: “The ability to reinvent industries, professions—that is [now] all in front of every one of us. It’ll put a premium on things like education, science, technology. It won’t matter what your job is. Everyone is going to have sort of a silver thread of having to understand how to apply data and analytics and technology in their job.” 

IBM’s challenges, like so many others, have created the realization that there is less certainty today and less predictability than ever before. Perhaps that is making us all more vulnerable. It also makes the followers less secure, because they realize that no one is really in control. Maybe this is why they are responding to a leader’s openness and willingness to share flaws, and are bonding into teams that are supportive of each other.    

Are you embracing your own vulnerability? 

Whether you are a leader or a follower, you may be responding to the new business environment with frustration, like some of our clients are. They are angry that people are buying insurance online. They are frustrated that the old ways of selling—over the telephone, for example—are failing dismally, setting well-honed sales people back on their heels. They are challenged by the complex cultures in their own organizations and also in the markets they serve. The pain of change is ubiquitous and not easily avoided.

But for this particular client leadership team who is balancing their own vulnerability, they have admitted that there is an uncertain future facing them. They are continuing to mobilize their team, and fortunately, the team is rising to the challenge, together. The empowerment and trust are turning followers into leaders. 

But this new reality is also causing these follower-leaders to realize that the leaders of the past who let them just sit in their chairs and watch the times change are no longer part of the script for the future. A new one is being written. 

What might this mean for you? 

We, as people, are fragile. In these fast-changing times, we are going to have to find new ways to lead, follow or get out of the way. Are you prepared? 

Want to know more? Download this free white paper.

The theory and tools of anthropology help you see changes taking place in your industry and adapt accordingly so your organization can grow and thrive. This white paper shows you how.

Wondering how to handle all this change? Give us a call, we can help.

At Simon Associates Management Consultants, we are corporate anthropologists who specialize in helping businesses use the tools and methods of anthropology to adapt to the changes of today and tomorrow. This is when new opportunities present themselves, when you have the eyes to see them. To learn more about how our change process can put you on the path to growth, please contact us for a $100 1-hour consultation. We’ll help you discover what new possibilities might be waiting for you and how to see them with fresh eyes.

From Observation to Innovation,


Andi Simon, Ph.D.
Corporate Anthropologist | President
Simon Associates Management Consultants

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