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The Surprising Key to Outstanding Leadership: Vulnerability


By Allison Gauss

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

At a business or nonprofit organization, the word “leader” is often synonymous with the word “boss” or “superior.” These associations can cause us to view leaders as more knowledgeable individuals that are always better equipped to make decisions. Yet, even when this is the case, leaders are not invincible or omniscient, and acting as though they are can cause your organization to repeat mistakes and miss important opportunities.

That’s why one of the most important qualities for truly outstanding leadership is vulnerability.

When a leader admits and learns from their missteps, they create a culture of trust that empowers your team to voice concerns and ask questions.  A leader that demonstrates and communicates their vulnerability and weaknesses builds trust with their team and gains access to valuable insights, new ideas, and critical feedback.

Nobody’s Perfect

Whether you’re the executive director, programs manager, or lead volunteer, one thing is certain: you don’t know everything there is to know. With technology, culture, and communication moving so fast, even the most experienced professionals have plenty to learn in their roles. The best leaders recognize this and learn from their mistakes and knowledge gaps.

“There’s nothing better for building credibility than when you admit that you’ve screwed up,” said Jay Ferro, former CIO of the American Cancer Society in an interview at the Collaborative. Some leaders may fear that owning up to their mistakes will damage the trust their team has in them, but it can actually do the opposite. When a leader admits they made a wrong call and explains how they plan to fix it, they show their team that the good of the organization is more important to them than being right or saving face.

There’s nothing better for building credibility than when you admit that you’ve screwed up.

Jay Ferro

former CEO of the American Cancer Society

Furthermore, being open and honest about missteps and key learnings can empower your team to innovate and get creative. “The energy you put out, people notice and then respond accordingly,” said Cindy Jones-Nyland, former CMO of Heifer International, at the Collaborative. When people see that you can admit when something doesn’t work and then learn from it, it sends the message than failed experiments and innovations are an important component of growth. If you want your team to implement creative solutions and adapt when things don’t work out, you must be a personal model of this approach.

Take Advantage of Your Team’s Expertise

You may not know everything, but you can hire people who bring new skill sets to the table. “I hire people a lot smarter and better at what they do than I am and you have to be willing to get out of the way,” said Ferro. It’s safe to say most organizations hire the best talent they can afford, but you if your team feels they can’t speak up to question and affect your overall strategy, you’ll be unable to tap into that talent and expertise.

For example, if you’re the executive director of your nonprofit and need to decide which programs to fund in a certain neighborhood, you should call on your team members who have worked there in the past and know the community. You may have the final say, but your employees can give you insight into program performance and some of the operational challenges in the area. Speak to your team and get their opinions in order to ensure your information-gathering process is as strategic and informed as possible.

When you ask for your team members’ input on the direction or strategy of your organization it shows that you value their experience and knowledge. It also reinforces the idea that you want to do what’s right for the organization, even if it’s not your idea. This will give your team the confidence to speak up when they see something going awry. Better to have a team member point out a problem in the moment than to carry on with an unsuccessful strategy or face criticism from donors and grant makers.

Practical Tips to Build Trust and Collaboration

A workplace culture of trust, vulnerability, and collaboration doesn’t just happen by accident. Use these steps to model and reinforce the behavior you want to instill:

  • Ask your team for input when you struggle with a decision, or even when the path seems clear. They could point out a roadblock you didn’t anticipate or propose an innovative or more impactful solution.
  • Respond to disagreement or criticism with interest, not defensiveness. If an employee brings up a flaw in your plan, think of it as a chance to collaborate and strengthen your strategy.
  • Practice the kind of feedback you want to receive. If you really want your team to offer you helpful insights, you have to do the same for them. When you spot a problem in someone else’s work, don’t just point out what’s wrong–try to help them find a better solution.
  • Thank your team members and share credit on your wins. This is a very important step to remember. While asking your team for help and input shows you value their opinion, recognition shows you acknowledge and appreciate collaboration. Thank your colleagues in the moment and when presenting projects to the organization, the board, and others.

A Leader’s Guide to Motivating Employees

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