stay humbleRecently, Rick and I were in Denver leading a Wisdom Discovery session for a company’s leadership program. One particularly interesting and controversial aspect of the discussion that emerged was that, in their words, good leaders are “vulnerable.” However, I had a negative, almost allergic reaction to this term when I heard it from the group, although I was the only one who didn’t like it. For everyone else, it seemed that their interpretation of “vulnerability” was a term describing how leaders could be more open and willing to express limitations and inadequacies to themselves and to others. In fact, most of the group thought that it was a sign of strength that a leader would be self-confident enough to be “vulnerable.” A significant focus of Patrick Lencioni’s work (author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable” among other books) is based on the idea that people should be vulnerable and disclose personal things about themselves. But, my belief is that this practice crosses an important line in the workplace and I’ve seen it abused with disastrous results. Many years ago, I worked for a company where the CEO believed that everyone needed to be vulnerable to the point of disclosing deep personal trauma to be a fully accepted member of his team. To ensure that this was the case, he periodically brought in consultants who systematically reduced people to tears. Eventually, I publicly said that I thought this was inappropriate and should be stopped – and soon I wasn’t working there. “Vulnerability” as a term that is often used in the workplace borders on pop-psychology and can be dangerous. I actually think what people mean is almost exactly the opposite. I think that what people really want are leaders who are so self-confident that they easily accept that they are limited humans and are OK with that. It isn’t admitting you are “inadequate” in some way – knowledge, skills, etc. – which seems like a very negative way to frame the discussion. Instead, it is acknowledging without fanfare that you are so comfortable with your humanity that you are humble in the face of a complex, changing and, in many ways, overwhelming world. Am I being vulnerable or realistic when I acknowledge I don’t know lots of things? I would say I am just being realistic. Does it bother me to say I don’t know lots of things? Not a bit, because it is so evident that I know so little about so many things that spending time and energy fretting about it isn’t a smart way to live. I don’t have to be vulnerable to be a good leader, but I do think I need to be humble. Being humble is, I believe, a much better way to think about leadership than being personally vulnerable. What do you think about the idea of great leaders being “humble” versus “vulnerable?”]]>

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