The Vulnerable Leader
I am scared. I am scared to write this and I am intimidated because my writing will be out in public to be read, critiqued and, in my mind, judged. I am nervous because this is real and it is vulnerable and guess what… I’m telling you, and myself, that it is okay. It ain’t easy, but I guess that means it’s important.
If you ask anyone I’ve ever talked to (and I talk a lot — maybe that’s why i don’t write very much, because I’m too busy yapping) they will recite by heart: “The two most important qualities in a leader are transparency and vulnerability.” That’s it. If you read no more, you have all the information you need to go out and make a true undeniable impact with your friends, coworkers, family, passersby, and yourself.
I know what you’re thinking: “Leon, that’s not enough. You don’t have enough steps. You didn’t even give yourself the opportunity to use your fancy oxford comma.” And you know, reader, maybe you’re right. I really don’t know. But what I do know is that I've had horrible bosses and amazing leaders in my life, and when I really boil it down, the ones who stand out as role models in my life are the ones who weren’t afraid to be imperfect. They are the ones I could sit down with and feel comfortable saying, "I messed up,” “I don’t know what to do,” and “I kicked so much ass and I probably shouldn’t be this prideful but it's been a hell of a ride and thank you for your guidance!” They are the ones who have opened themselves up to me as beautifully flawed human beings with successes, failures, and struggles. These are women and men whom I can follow because their path is real to me.
Don’t get me wrong — I have worked with, and for, some of the most brilliant minds, strategists, engineers, coaches, and executives. Those who always seem to have the right answer, the perfectly pressed suit, and know the right thing to say to disarm someone and win the deal. And I will continue to learn from these people as they come into my life. But for me that level of perfection is just not tangible. That level of polish and refinement is unattainable to me; I do not see a reflection of myself in their flawless veneers. And if I cannot envision myself on their path, how can I hope to follow or truly learn from them? That’s why for me vulnerability and transparency are key — vulnerability is the access point for communication.
One of my first lessons in vulnerability came in the third grade when our class was tasked with reading a biography and writing a letter to its subject. A real letter. With ink. In cursive script. Stamp, address of the publisher, and everything. I — like many children raised in America — was a baseball fan. And I had my heroes: Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente. The list of larger-than-life ball players, living and deceased, who overcame insurmountable odds to achieve greatness goes on and on. But I did not choose to write to any of them. I chose to write my letter to Pete Rose, someone who is a true display of grit and determination. Someone who is willing to get his uniform dirty and do what it takes to win. A man who, through conscious and illegal actions, brought such a dark spot upon professional sports that all his physical achievements may never escape the shadow of his faults.
My letter was simple. I just wanted to know why he gambled on his team and why, to this day, it was such a big deal. I did not ask because I was ashamed and could never in my right mind wear a Cincinnati Reds ball cap ("that’s for other reasons," says the Cleveland Indians fan proudly writing to you), but because I knew even at such a young age that I have made mistakes too. I saw my imperfect self in this man's story. And I received a response. It was a thank you letter from the publisher telling me that Mr. Rose could not be reached. Lesson learned — not everyone is ready to be vulnerable.
And not everyone has to. You can lead a wonderfully successful and fruitful life without opening up to your children, parents, direct reports, and community. But you cannot lead. Or, better stated, you cannot be followed.
According to my friend and fellow improviser James Robilotta, the difference between a hero and a role model comes down to tangibility and transparency. In James’ book, “Leading Imperfectly”, he reflects that heroes are neither transparent nor tangible. Heroes are neither transparent nor tangible. And that tangibility and transparency is what it takes to be followed, to truly lead. This ability to make a real human connection with another, and not saving said person but providing access and a guide for them to save themselves, is what I define as vulnerable leadership. A true leader is a leader all of the time, not only when the time is right, and not only in the office or as a keynote speaker, but in their everyday life — with clients and partners, family, church groups, you name it. Always willing to say, “I got it wrong, now let's make it right.”
(If you have a chance to check out “Leading Imperfectly”, do it! It is almost like sitting and having a one-on-one conversation with this amazing man… almost.)
So the question that I ask myself, and I challenge you to ask yourself, is am I willing and able to lay down the facade and expose my vulnerability? Am I able to be truthful and transparent both in my successes and in my failures? Am I willing to take the risk of exposure in exchange for true human connection? If the answers you get are yes and brought up a whole swath of other questions in their wake, then you’re probably well on your way to becoming a leader in your life.