Article: Jacob Morgan on leading with vulnerability at work


Jacob Morgan on leading with vulnerability at work

The best-selling author, speaker and futurist, Jacob Morgan takes us through the journey of leading with vulnerability, a concept that’s given birth to his new book, Leading with Vulnerability: Unlock Your Greatest Superpower to Transform Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organisation, which could offer a new lease of life to leaders.
Jacob Morgan on leading with vulnerability at work

Are you always vulnerable at work but still unable to garner respect from your peers? Do you feel that people are unable to connect with you as a leader? We’ve all had questions around vulnerability and if it really invites compassion or chaos, more so for CEOs leading organisations through unprecedented change. Futurist, keynote speaker, founder of The Future of Work University and best-selling author Jacob Morgan takes us through his own journey of leading with vulnerability and how personal conversations with over 100 CEOs across the world culminated into research for his new book, ‘Leading with Vulnerability: Unlock Your Greatest Superpower to Transform Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organisation’. 

The idea might have its roots in his childhood but it wasn’t until later in life that he understood the extent of leading with vulnerability. Growing up in a communist country, vulnerability wasn’t an easy attribute to emulate as he saw his own kin never sharing emotions or feelings due to fear of how it would be used against them. Even as a child, he had two opposing styles of living in his own family. While his mum was comfortable being vulnerable, his dad didn’t believe in sharing problems or talking about feelings. With his inclination more towards his dad’s school of thought, he worked hard at being the best, always. Then came a pivotal moment in life that changed everything and the idea for the book took shape.

Even now, as he shares his research and stories of leading with vulnerability, he still struggles with it at times and is on the same journey as everyone else. But he strongly believes that leading with vulnerability has enriched his relationships with friends, family and teams and changed his life for the better.

As we gear up for Asia’s largest HR and Work Tech conference, where Jacob will talk about ‘leading with vulnerability’ and his book for the very first time, he gave us a sneak peek into the meaning of the concept, what he found through his research and how emulating and following the concept could change your life in ways you never thought possible, in a pre-cursor LinkedIn Live leading up to People Matters TechHR Singapore. So, prepare yourself to gain the steps to becoming a vulnerable leader and create your own vulnerability mountain. 

What it means to lead with vulnerability

Jacob Morgan believes that there is a big difference between vulnerability and leading with vulnerability. If you ask him, ’Should we be vulnerable at work’, his answer will be  a firm ’No’. He takes us through two different stories to help us understand the difference. 

A few decades ago, Hollis Harris, the CEO of Continental Airlines, had to address 42,000 employees as the company was going through difficulties. When he took the stage, he said, ‘The company is struggling and going down and I don’t know what to do. All employees should pray for the future of the company.’ Now, what Hollis did was show his vulnerabilities but the leadership component was missing. 

But when Fleetwood Grobler, CEO of South African energy company took over Sasol and faced a similar situation, his message to his employees was, ‘I acknowledge that the company is struggling and we are going through tough times. But I have a vision and an idea of where I want this company to go. While I might not know the exact steps we can take to get there, I am confident that we can rebuild trust in our customers and if you go with me on this journey, together we can figure out a path forward to become a successful business again.’ 

According to the podcaster, the key differentiating factor in the two scenarios is leading with vulnerability, competence and connection. What we come across in most organisations are leaders who ask for help when they don’t know how to do a certain task. What’s far more effective is to say that ‘I need help and here’s what I am going to do in the future to solve this problem.’ The idea is not to be vulnerable at work but to lead with vulnerability. 

Definition, attributes and misconceptions encaging a vulnerable leader

Jacob defines a vulnerable leader as a leader who intentionally opens themselves up to potential emotional harm, while taking action to create a positive outcome. But what happens when you have one and not the other? If you are vulnerable all the time in a senior role, struggling and constantly asking for help, employees will wonder why you are in the role to begin with. Similarly, if you are never vulnerable and always leading the conversation, people would think of you as a robot. Both of those scenarios are detrimental to growth and success of the business. 

Vulnerable employee Vs vulnerable exec: The dissonance

While Jacob urges each one of us to lead with vulnerability, the dynamics do change depending on one’s role and position within an organisation. If an employee from accounting, for example, gives the same speech as Hollis to his team, people would just tell him to take the day off and relax or take him out for lunch assuming he’s having a bad day at work. It wouldn’t create panic and chaos. The reason being that vulnerability isn’t the same for a leader as it is for everyone else. Leaders need to bridge the elements of vulnerability and leadership together to lead through change. 

Uncertain times calls for leading with vulnerability

When leaders are going through periods of uncertainty and stress, they tend to bottle up issues without communicating it to the larger teams out of fear. But the author firmly believes that leading with vulnerability is a crucial element to lead through change. A leader needs to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers and when they do that, they bring in wisdom and ideas from people around them to help solve complex problems and challenges. And if a leader opposes the idea, they miss out on opportunities and make mistakes but none of their employees are able to share that with them because of the position they hold. 

Interlinkage of vulnerability with dependency 

Jacob reiterates an interesting balance between vulnerability and dependency and it is not just restricted to employees but encompasses employers too. Inherently, we’ve always believed that employees are vulnerable to the CEO because they can fire them, push them to do things they don’t wish to do and basically turn their life hell at work. All because employees are dependent on the CEO to look out for them. But even employers are vulnerable to their employees because if the latter doesn’t do good work, the business struggles. 

In today’s world, the vulnerability employees have towards their leaders is often acknowledged and widely accepted. But there’s a need for leaders to acknowledge the vulnerability they have to their people, which will level the playing field. What’s happening in organisations right now is that leaders assume that because they are in a position of power, everyone should trust them, be vulnerable to them without them ever reciprocating it back. But if we acknowledge that vulnerability is a two-way street, it opens doors to collaboration, ideas, learning, innovation and growth. 

What’s your leader like? The 4 types of leaders at work

Jacob has explained the four types of leaders that exist in his book extensively but if you were to imagine it, think of a grid with four boxes with leadership on the X-axis and vulnerability on the Y-axis. You can determine where you fit into the box but most importantly, you can find out where the leader you work with falls in the box. 

  • Novice: A leader who isn’t in a leadership role yet officially but is on that path and deciding what kind of leadership they should follow. 
  • Incompetent: A leader who is good at being vulnerable and connecting with people but isn’t the right person to be leading the company as they don’t seem to know what they should and keep asking others for help. 
  • Robot: A leader who is good at the traditional leadership aspects but is unable to connect with people. While they are able to get their team to do what they want, the means is usually commanding and controlling and it lacks engagement, motivation and inspiration. This is usually the stereotype of most leaders around the world. 
  • Vulnerable: A leader who bridges and combines vulnerability with leadership and is good at traditional leadership aspects as well as building connections with people. 

The most effective and least practised leadership behaviours

During his research for the book, Jacob teamed up with the global leadership firm, Development Dimensions International (DDI) and surveyed 14,000 leaders to get perspective on what’s happening inside organisations, findings of which can be found in the Global Leadership Forecast Annual Report. What Jacob focused on was the most effective leadership behaviours and how often they are practised by leaders. They found 13, which included practices like maintaining high trust and confidentiality, sharing ideas and thoughts for certain decisions, giving positive feedback, willingness to be emotionally vulnerable, genuinely acknowledging failure as a mistake, inquiring about someone’s well being, etc. But among these 13 attributes, the least practised behaviours included willingness to be emotionally vulnerable, genuinely acknowledging failure as a shortcoming, caring about someone else’s well being and encouraging others to challenge old ways of doing things. 

To understand better where leaders are going wrong, these 13 attributes were segregated and broken down into two buckets: traditional leadership behaviours and emerging leadership behaviours. As they analysed further, several facets came to light. As one grows and succeeds within an organisation and achieve senior roles, they start to exhibit less and less of emerging leadership behaviours such as vulnerability. The research also revealed that even today, more emphasis and value is placed on traditional leadership qualities while emerging leadership qualities are neglected.

Does leading with vulnerability have a cultural basis?

While Jacob believes that there are cultural differences that invariably influence leaders to lead with vulnerability, the concept of connecting with people and being good at your job is universal and determines whether you are successful or not, no matter where you are and where you go. Through his research, he has tried to focus on the similarities but that isn’t to say that the differences are more nuanced and much more specific once you start to dig deeper. 

Chaos vs compassion conundrum

Leading with vulnerability usually invites polar opposing views of compassion and chaos, which many leaders struggle with. During Jacob’s conversation with CEOs, the big question that arose was, ‘My employees want me to be vulnerable but at the same time, they want me to be confident. They want me to connect, but also want me to talk about mistakes, failures and challenges and how to guide them through it all.’

Most leaders don’t lead with vulnerability because they believe that it would be perceived as a weakness or a sign of incompetence. Citing Elliot Aronson’s concept of Pratfall Effect, Jacob explains that people’s perception of their leaders depends on their competency levels. If a leader is good at their job, is competent and confident and makes a mistake, people perceive them as more human, which garners them a certain amount of respect. But if one isn’t good at their job and keeps talking about failures without the same level of competence, the idea of them being mediocre is reinforced.

But that doesn’t mean new employees or leaders shouldn’t talk about mistakes and failures or even ask for help. But it’s important to establish that you are doing something to get better and learn from your mistakes. In the end, the futurist believes that if a leaders want to lead with vulnerability, while projecting a certain sense of confidence, they need to build that level of competence as well. It all boils down to how good you are at your job!

Empowering a culture of leading with vulnerability

The first and foremost step in this endeavour is to lead by example. But each leader should create their own vulnerability mountain and design the steps to climb it. As is the case with climbing any mountain, the first few steps will be easy. But the higher you go, the more challenging it becomes. Jacob encourages leaders to imagine what it will be like to reach the highest peak on that vulnerability mountain where you will have to decide what’s the most uncomfortable thing for you to do and at the bootom, you can place what’s the easiest thing for you to do, that can be implemented today or tomorrow. That’s the place leaders need to begin their journey. As you climb the vulnerability mountain, day by day, step by step, you will gain clarity and be able to see farther than you ever have while connecting with people. 

Last word of advice

Leaders need to understand the vulnerable leader equation and start closing the gap between leadership and vulnerability. In all your actions, decisions and encounters with people, ask yourself, ‘How are you demonstrating leadership and vulnerability.’ If you form that mental checklist when you are having any discussion, engagement or interaction with others, you will be a far more effective leader with a superpower that transforms you, your team and your company. 

To dig deeper on the findings of leading with vulnerability and listen to Jacob’s conversations with leading CEOs of the world, join us at People Matters TechHR Singapore on August 24 at Marina Bay Sands. The author will share the concept of his upcoming book through his keynote, ‘Behind The Mask: How Vulnerability Can Make You A Better Leader’. To catch up all updates, follow the #TechHRSG. Register now for Asia’s largest HR and Work Tech conference!

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Topics: Leadership, Leadership Development, C-Suite, #TechHRSG

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