In my last post Being vulnerable about vulnerability, I shared a lot about how learning to be present with my vulnerability has impacted me. Since then I have been reflecting on what may have led me to struggling so much with being vulnerable, and more importantly what is possible when leaders can allow themselves to be vulnerable.
To start I would propose we are all leaders in some areas of our lives. A leader is someone who leads or guides others. Look at your whole life and I’m willing to bet you will find more than one place you live up to that definition. There are explicit areas such as management positions, senior positions in companies, volunteer leaders in the community, and many more. You should also consider the places of implied leadership such as inspiring co-workers to something better, parenting, role models and many more.
I remember a time I was a program manager and accountable for the delivery of a multi-million dollar program. This program would take nearly 2 years to complete and had two major parts to it. I started the first part in the mindset of being my biggest opportunity yet and drank the PMI kool-aid as it would assure success. I saw myself as being solely accountable for the program. My success was dependent on creating and maintaining certainty in the outcome.
I would gather information from the team and build a schedule showing how we would execute hundreds of activities in the coming year giving the illusion of certainty (although I didn’t see it as an illusion at the time). When things didn’t go as planned, I would respond by trying to protect my team from management pressure and work to recreate certainty because this time we know better. I would just continually run around trying to create certainty, and limiting the amount of vulnerability I provided to those around me. The result … well … lets just say they were less than stellar. Management replaced me by bringing in another program manager to take over this half of the program.
At the time all of my Project Management training told me it was possible to create certainty through careful planning. The companies I worked for at the time required me to create plans with 50%, 80% or some exacting measure of certainty. I believed it was possible to do that, and hung my success on those numbers. So to act with vulnerability would have meant I am acknowledging we have an uncertain outcome. To acknowledge an uncertain outcome would have been like saying I’m not a very good manager.
This meant I ran away from vulnerability and hid it below my surface. It was difficult to be present with a vulnerable me. In suppressing my from vulnerability I put myself in The Control CycleTM. In other words, I hung my self-worth on the “certainty” in my plans and when things fell off the rails (and they always do) I would respond by evaluating and giving myself advice. This led to trying to control the situation, which led to my team complying which led back to having more problems.
Fortunately for me I had a manager who believed in me. She gave me a second chance and gave me the second half of the program to manage. I had to meet what seemed like an almost impossible objective. I had to lead a team delivering around 1,200 days work in 3 months. To make it even more interesting we needed to hire around 24 contractors almost overnight to form our team. Long story short this part of the program was wildly successful. We delivered what we said we would, on the day we said we would, and $8,000 under budget.
In reflection the key difference is I made myself vulnerable to my team. I still needed to create a plan and provide management the official illusion of certainty. However, I operated from a position of vulnerability which meant I was transparent to those around me. For the team I was leading I provided transparency into the pressures and demands we faced. I then provided the leadership to look at a problem and become clear about what’s underlying it. With this clarity we could trust our ability to respond to whatever life threw our way. They were an incredible group of strangers who came together to form a real kick-ass team as a result.
What I came to realize in this experience is leaders are rarely (if ever) in a position of creating true certainty. Life is complex and there are an infinite number of variables to work our way through. This means a successful leader needs to embrace uncertainty. The only way to truly embrace uncertainty is through vulnerability. As a leader I have learned to act from a position of vulnerability and focus more on being really good at responding effectively through The Power CycleTM. In The Power Cycle I look to see what is true about a situation. With truth comes clarity, and with clarity comes trust in myself and those I lead to take on whatever we encounter. For me vulnerability has become cornerstone to truly effective leadership.
I know I have more to learn about being present with vulnerability. However, what I do know is based on my experiences the outcomes are always better when I am vulnerable.
So the next time you find yourself as a leader ask: “What might be possible if I act with vulnerability?”