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The Leadership Power of Vulnerability

Earlier this week I was sitting in a town hall meeting held by the head of human resources for an organization going through a major overhaul of its HR function.  The audience was a collection of HR professionals from throughout the world gathered in person and via the web to hear about state of affairs with the massive change that had begun a few months earlier.

The audience waited anxiously expecting an announcement of inevitable job loss, but also hoping their leader would share a vision of a modern, effective department whose contributions were prized by the organization.

Instead, the SVP droned for thirty unfulfilling minutes spouting meaningless clichés about tackling the “low hanging fruit” (eight times) on their way to having a “seat at the table” (five times) where they could be a “strategic partner with the business” (six times).  He stumbled through his too-detailed slides in a lifeless monotone with a stiff back and an empty facial expression.  Detached.  Distant.  Not revealing anything of substance.

The feedback from the audience after the meeting suggested he failed not only to provide any meaningful information, but more importantly to make the connection required to get anything more than dutiful compliance to the task ahead.  The comments after the presentation ranged from the politically correct (“I think his plan is still developing”) to the skeptical (“I’m not sure he fully understands what’s required”) to the confused (“I’m not really sure what the heck he said”) to the hostile (“He doesn’t have a clue”).

He will need much more than that to get the focus, energy and commitment required to complete the effort.

Now, imagine the difference if he stood at the front of the room, took off his jacket, sat on the edge of a table and said:

“Our business has changed a great deal over the past decade, and it’s clear that the HR function that brought us to this point needs to change to support our company in the coming years.  To help us identify the right steps to take, we hired some experienced advisors to share their insights and present us with recommendations.  I would like to say that I understand all that we need to do, but I’m still learning about these new tools, processes and structural changes and what they will mean for us.  What I do know is that with your help, we will be able to make the right decisions—even the tough decisions—that will take us in the best direction.  Now, let me share with you some of what I understand and where I am still learning.”

Our instinct during times of uncertainty is to domesticate reality.  We try to put life in a box where we can control it and we hide behind platitudes hoping that the appearance of certainty will bring comfort to those around us.  The result?  We appear inauthentic and we put distance between ourselves and those we are trying to lead.

Instead, we must learn to live with a robust and confident uncertainty.  Only by allowing ourselves to be seen, showing our own vulnerability, will we draw others close enough to engage in the creative, collaborative process of facing the unknown.

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