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Why Vulnerability Leads to Great Leadership

Why Vulnerability Leads to Great Leadership

Everybody knows it is important for leaders to show confidence and competence. But good leadership requires more than that. As management guru Jim Collins put it, a good leader combines both humility and fierce resolve. And for a leader to be seen as humble, they must be able to demonstrate vulnerability. This needs to be better understood.

Simply put, followers want more than a strong leader. They also want to relate to the person in charge. So to be a good leader, you have to be okay with occasionally looking bad, or at least imperfect. You must be able to admit mistakes and accept help from others. As John Furlong, head of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, noted in my book "Good Leaders Learn," pretty much every human being has experienced the feeling of "being in way over my head," so the more willing any leader is to be vulnerable, the more willing people will be to accept he or she as a leader.

Unfortunately, corporate all-stars do not automatically rise to the top as gracious, self-sacrificing individuals willing to put ego aside in order to advance the interests of their organization as a whole. In fact, success often raises expectations for more success. And when this happens, dread of failure increases with the stakes of the game, making it harder for people to show vulnerability. This is why talented people frequently do whatever they can to hide mistakes and shortcomings.

Nevertheless, the development of humility involves a mix of success and failure. Indeed, as pointed out in a HBR article on leadership development by Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas, "the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders." In other words, facing crucibles, meaning setbacks that force people to find a larger meaning in what might otherwise be a disheartening experience, is key to the development of effective leadership.

Failure, of course, is easiest for the young, when the stakes are lower. Unfortunately, educational systems often foster success at the expense of failure. Students applying to top colleges and universities clamor to make the cut, packing resumes with as much achievement as possible. New Republic writer William Deresiewicz raised this issue last year in a provocative article that argued today's Ivy League schools do a bad job at fostering a value system in undergraduates. "So extreme are the admission standards now," wrote Deresiewicz, who graduated from Columbia and taught at Yale, "that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk."

Despite being on a fast track to becoming part of America's privileged "one per cent," this risk adverse mindset sticks with these students after they graduate. Instead of following personal passions or working for something greater than themselves, many see themselves in a never-ending tournament for extraordinary rewards. In the business world, they constantly worry that anything less than success at everything they try will consign them to a mediocre career. This is a problem that all educational institutions need to address.

So how do we teach future leaders to embrace the experience of failure? As I noted in an earlier blog on a unique business school course called "Leadership under Fire," Ivey has moved to address this risk aversion by co-designing a course with members of the Canadian Forces. The course offers business school undergraduates the opportunity to experience a modified version of the Canadian Armed Forces' basic officer training program. Students enrolled in this course, which was introduced two years ago, are kept busy by professional soldiers, who push them out of their comfort zones as they face a series of demanding physical and mental challenges over several days. It doesn't take long for friction to emerge. As a result, personal crucibles are created because everyone ends up having to lead and follow under exhausting and stressful conditions, and almost all of them fail in some public way.

Crucibles, of course, work only if people take the time to reflect on their experiences. We give the students readings on leadership before and during the ordeal, along with some pointed questions. Afterwards, they give each other feedback, receive feedback from the military staff and then assess their own performance and character. The deliverable is a lengthy self-reflection paper on their ordeal both as a leader and follower. As one student reflected, "I think the stress factor was needed to remove the guise that we often put up and see our true character." Another student wrote, "When faced with a difficult situation that I don't seem to be succeeding in, I need to find a solution rather than an excuse."

That self-understanding, and the readiness to seek help from those with compensating strengths, is just the kind of learning we're hoping to achieve. The only way to shake students out of the tournament mentality is ground them in who they are individually. It is also exactly the kind of character development that we need to see more of in business education, leadership courses and workplace development programs.

This doesn't need to be complicated. Ed Clark, the recently retired head of TD Bank Group, believes that personal mistakes are always harder to correct than mistakes made by others. And as a leader, he focuses on them. In fact, he would not promote anyone at TD, even highly talented people, unless they could demonstrate a learning moment related to being forced to correct mistakes they had admitted making on the job.

We want people to be firmly confident of their specific strengths -- and humble about their mistakes and weaknesses. Only then will they have the force of personality to inspire other imperfect human beings to join them in great endeavors.

Gerard Seijts is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour, holds the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Chair in Leadership, and is Executive Director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute of Leadership at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. He can be reached at

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