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LOCAL DRUMMER: Why leaders must be vulnerable


You may be one of those people who recoil at the idea of leaders showing any sign of weakness.

Local Drummer with Thembe Khumalo

Perhaps you believe that you earn the right to lead others by being near-perfect, assuming a divine status and never making mistakes.

Or maybe you think leaders have to be so strong and so invincible that they should never appear to be rattled by anything. Well, you could be right, I suppose. Or perhaps you could have been right in a previous era.

Modern-day thinking on the subject of leadership suggests otherwise. Today’s leadership teaching encourages leaders to be authentic rather than authoritarian, to be collaborative, rather than controlling and to be builders of people rather than stars in their own right.

To be authentically engaged with his team, a leader must make a connection. Connections are opportunities for people to achieve alignment of vision, perspective or experience.

So, unless you are addressing a crowd of demi-gods, who have never encountered a moment of weakness, you will find that some level of vulnerability helps you to make a connection.

When the person who leads me is willing to attest to having erred at some point, I begin to understand that to err is not the end, but rather a part of the process of achieving my goals. I will not be overwhelmed by a task that seems monumental to me if I know that there is a leader somewhere who once felt similarly overwhelmed, but has come through it and gone on to succeed.

But if all the leaders around me appear to be near perfect, I am likely to give up at the first sign of trouble, knowing that I myself am not perfect.

But let’s not kid ourselves; this whole vulnerability thing is not without its pitfalls. For one thing, people might take advantage of that vulnerability, and use it to work against me rather than with me. For another, being vulnerable might erode my hard-won authority. How can I show my flaws and still expect people to respect me in the morning?

There are no simple or out-of-the-box answers to that. But you might want to consider that your authority is won on the basis of many attributes. Perhaps your skills and experience, your knowledge and aptitude for the subject, your attitude and adaptability, and so on.

If those are authentic elements that you bring to the table, they will not cease to exist just because you admitted to being afraid of a specific transaction; or because you felt such despair over losing an account you worked hard on that you cried.

In the morning you will still be who you were before you showed your vulnerable underbelly.

You will still have all the knowledge you always had, (and probably more) and your skills will be fully intact. In short — you will have lost nothing, or as they say in Mashonaland, haubve chinhu!

As for people taking advantage of you — well, if you are a leader, you are already vulnerable because people may take advantage of you anyway.

Leadership is very much like love — it is a big risk — it is dependent on other people believing in you, and it relies heavily on trust.

Have you ever thought about how scary leading actually is? After all, no one might follow, and you could look very foolish indeed.

Leaders put themselves out every day to stand for causes they believe in; whether those causes are brands, movements, nations, or doctrines.

While you are worrying about the possible pitfalls of allowing yourself to be vulnerable to your people, consider this: Vulnerability goes hand in hand with confidence.

Leaders who are comfortable in their own skin, who are self-assured and accomplished, and have genuine achievements to their name, will not be hesitant about admitting their flaws.

We were in a discussion at business school recently when I had my classmates in stitches recounting a frivolous story about a guy who dumped me in my twenties because he said I was “more of a mainframe kinda gal” and he preferred a PC — compact and portable (it was in the days before laptops and smartphones). The woman who was sitting next to me was horrified: “Why would you share something like that?” she whispered. I replied: “Because I think it’s funny.”

I really did think it was funny, but when I thought about it some more, the underlying reason I shared that story was because it demonstrated that when you are down you don’t have to stay there.

You only occupy a space of failure, indignity or embarrassment for as long as you want to. Now, if there is someone you look up to that you can see has overcome a moment of weakness, then you have tangible proof that it’s doable. More leaders being more vulnerable gives us more tangible proofs that it’s doable – the more proofs the better.

While no one wants to come across as an insecure bundle of hysteria, vulnerability makes for very inspiring stories — and what is a leader, if not a person who inspires us to deliver the best of ourselves?

When leaders share their own stories, it engenders trust. And once you’ve shared a scary story, it ceases to be a danger to you.

Better still, a story of failure told by yourself, (rather than someone else) gives you total ownership of that story. You have diffused the bomb. And your story might help someone else.

It takes courage to be vulnerable, and good people will sense that intuitively. The more courage you demonstrate, the more likely people will be to trust you — and that leads to greater influence.

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