Becoming a Vulnerable Leader: One Leader's Journey

by Daniel B. Griffith, J.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Article content is provided by HigherEdJobs.

Are leadership and vulnerability compatible? In Book Review - Ego Free Leadership: Ending the Unconscious Habits that Hijack Your Business, I described the process outlined in the book for transforming dysfunctional, ego-driven organizational cultures into open, collaborative cultures with leaders who are authentic and, yes, vulnerable. I describe in this article my journey through this process through participation in the Learning as Leadership Personal Mastery Seminar on which the principles and strategies discussed in "Ego Free Leadership" are based. In sharing it, I hope readers will appreciate that being vulnerable as a leader reflects strength, competence, and authenticity to which others will be drawn and leaders should aspire rather than a weakness to be overcome.

A sense of paralysis. When we think of destructive "ego" behaviors, we may think of the brash, arrogant, argumentative leader, such as a CEO similar to how co-author Brandon Black described himself. I am not a CEO and can't fairly be characterized as brash or overtly arrogant. Yet, destructive "ego" behaviors manifest in other ways that are no less self-defeating. Prior to attending the Personal Mastery seminar, if I could not pin down these precise behaviors, I was fully aware that how I was feeling, thinking, and acting was holding me back from realizing professional goals to which I aspired.

In recent years, organizational and leadership changes within my institution resulted in various job reassignments that left me feeling uncertain. For various reasons connected with these changes, I began to experience a sense of paralysis. I continued to work in a way that many would not notice my distress, other than a few close colleagues, yet I was clearly not functioning in a positive, hopeful manner. Thankfully, a trusted friend and colleague from another institution who has participated in LaL's programs noted my distress and recommended the Personal Mastery seminar. I remember one comment distinctly: "Dan, you seem to have a lot you want to offer the world, but you're not offering it." Indeed, I needed a new path forward.

The journey. I engaged in the full learning process described in "Ego Free Leadership." I was assigned a coach who guided me through a 360 feedback process involving the review and evaluation of feedback received from peers, superiors, valued constituents, and direct reports. I participated in the Personal Mastery seminar designed to help leaders explore their strengths and areas for improvement, examine patterns of thought and behavior that hold them back, and make commitments and set goals for change. I continued to receive coaching after the seminar to help reinforce new learnings and keep on track with my commitments.

Breakthrough moment. I learned through the 360 process that, while my passion for many aspects of my work is evident, particularly for workplace mediation and teaching conflict resolution skills, I hold back, become withdrawn, and tend to be reticent in certain environments about sharing what I have to offer and how my contributions can make a difference. We were encouraged in the seminar to explore patterns of thought and behavior that are triggered when we perceive "ego threats" to our values and sense of self-worth. These patterns often form at an early age. Various self-reflective exercises challenged us to consider how various difficult and often painful childhood experiences may influence how we think and act in adulthood in order to protect against these ego threats.

I found this exploration difficult at first because my childhood was generally positive. Yet, mid-point through the seminar, the inkling of an experience surfaced. It occurred on a bus in which I was booed by fellow junior high band members for a musical mistake I made at a concert that had just concluded. It is a classic bus story that many have experienced and fear for their children, accompanied with the lonely, desperate feeling when no one offers their seat. My story ended with compassion as one caring band member offered her seat and contrition as the main instigator apologized. Yet, from this, I realized that I shut down when I perceive the possibility of an ambush, particularly where my actions and motives are questioned. I often feel paralyzed to raise concerns or objections, offer suggestions, or share ideas in situations where I'm not fully comfortable in the environment, fully trusting of those present, or fully prepared when challenged.

Establishing "noble goals." Seminar leaders encourage participants to make commitments to "never again" revert to previous dysfunctional mindsets and behaviors. We can then begin to visualize and establish "noble goals" which co-author Shayne Hughes describes as "our personal response to the question, 'What context, atmosphere, or environment do I want to create for myself and others?'" My bus story opened new thoughts about my purpose and why I have so much passion around workplace mediation, interpersonal conflict resolution, and creating safe spaces where people can work through their differences, even amidst the chaos of the "buses" they board everyday (i.e., their work environments, family situations, communities, etc.). It gave new energy for realigning my professional goals and more courage and vulnerability to share my passions and interests and seek support from friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Through coaching, I continue to realign my priorities to achieve these new goals and find renewed purpose in my life and work.

Lessons learned. What is your journey to becoming a more authentic, vulnerable leader? Whether it takes you through LaL's Personal Mastery program, "Ego Free Leadership" provides concrete insights and strategies to consider. Among my lessons learned are:

  • Notice your "pinches" and "ego threats," then respond differently. As noted in the previous article, we may wish to live "at the source" where our energy is focused outwardly and we are fully engaged in bringing out our best regardless of external circumstances. The reality is we often live "at the mercy" of the demands, expectations, and unanticipated circumstances of life. We can, however, notice when circumstances arise that tempt us to revert to old patterns and then choose different responses. While I continue to live "at the mercy" in many situations, I have taken better notice when my sense of value and self-worth is threatened. In the terminology of "Ego Free Leadership," I identify my "pinches" and "sort" them to arrive at thoughts and responses that are more constructive.
  • Don't place responsibility on others for your choices and behaviors. "Ego Free Leadership" discusses the concept of "making others bad." Hughes states, "[W]henever we are in our reactive state or at the mercy, our protective behaviors have negative, undermining consequences on others. We feel like victims but are simultaneously the victimizers." These tendencies lead to dysfunctional interactions, such as the "self-fulfilling prophecy loop" discussed in the previous article. While we may not excuse others' negative behaviors, we can "make others good" by "making a 'never again' decision: a refusal to blindly continue our own egosystem behaviors." We can stop allowing "our ego triggers [to] cause us to act out, to shut down in destructive ways, or to devalue others."
  • Share your fears and vulnerabilities. As noted in the previous article, we protect our egos by working to appear in ways that affirm our sense of self-worth ("desired image") and avoid appearing in ways that threaten this sense of self-worth ("dreaded image"). Instead, as we interact with others and assert our interests, we can be more explicit in sharing how we don't wish to be perceived (arrogant, lacking competence, other dreaded images). We can also stop trying so hard to perfect a "desired" image and learn to express ourselves in ways that reflect our truer selves, interests, and desires. I have learned how prudent, yet honest, sharing of my vulnerabilities and becoming less guarded have fostered greater connection and trust rather than distance.
  • Open yourself up to new possibilities. In protecting against ego threats, I also deprive myself of possibilities for joy and new creation by suppressing what I have to offer and how my contributions may benefit others. I have begun to establish new plans and creative projects, which in itself is nothing new. What is different is a sense of promise and possibility for staying on track as I more openly share with others and elicit their support. I'm learning that as I open up more to others, they are more receptive to supporting me.