The Most Common Executive Struggles – Part 4

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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When I work with executive teams, I will commonly do 360-degree assessments that focuses specifically on vertical development and mindsets. It is a way to help the executives get a sense of how they are showing up as a leader to those they interact with and lead.

Across all of the executive teams I have done this with, there is one question/item where executives consistently score the lowest.

The item is: “This leader is OK being vulnerable.”

This item (along with other items) is rated on a five-point scale of strongly disagree to strongly agree. A low score across the items in the assessment is a low 4.XX (e.g., 4.12).

The average score for this item is generally in the 3.60-3.95 range, meaningfully lower than all other items.

What is Vulnerability?

When I go over the individual feedback with the executives, they will inevitably ask me, “What is meant by ‘vulnerability?’”

My initial response is, “This is left up to the interpretation of the rater.” We kind of know it when we see it, and we know when it is not there. But, people may define it differently.

Trying to step into how people see vulnerability, here are some ideas:

  • A willingness to admit that one does not know or does not have the right answers
  • A willingness to admit struggles, confusion, or uncertainty
  • A willingness to share emotions in generally (e.g., stating “I feel really scared”)
  • A willingness to be fully transparent about the current state of things

This means that a lack of vulnerability is:

  • Acting as if you have all the answers
  • Not admitting struggles, confusion, or uncertainty
  • Not sharing emotions or creating the space for others to share their emotions
  • Not being fully transparent about the current state of things

(What am I missing here? Comment below.)


Why Aren’t Leaders More Vulnerable?

Let’s look at vulnerability through the lens of vertical development and how we “make meaning” of vulnerability.

How would you say most people make meaning of vulnerability? I think most see it as a sign/signal of weakness.

I think most people think that if they don’t have the right answers, admit struggles, share emotions, and are fully transparent, others will see them as not being a very effective leader.

Thus, a lack of vulnerability is a self-protective mechanism. And, any self-protective mechanism is not very cognitively or emotionally sophisticated.

Remember, those in Mind 1.0 and Mind 2.0 are focused on themselves, either standing in (Mind 1.0) or standing out (Mind 2.0). Thus, a lack of vulnerability is a signal of a self-protective internal operating system.

A Mind 3.0 Perspective on Vulnerability

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see vulnerability as a sign/signal of weakness. In fact, the strongest people that I know are the ones who are willing to be vulnerable.

Thus, to me, seeing/making meaning of vulnerability as a signal of strength feels much more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated.

(All this being said, there is complexity to this topic. I do believe that one can be too vulnerable or vulnerable too much.)

Why Vulnerability is So Important

There are two main reasons why it is so important for executives to be vulnerable.

  1. It helps strengthen the relationships between them and those they lead
  2. It fosters an environment of psychological safety

Both of these things are essential for trust, which is a key economic driver of the organization (increases speed, reduces costs).

Check in With Yourself

In light of all of this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How good of a job do I do at being vulnerable? (e.g., do I share my emotions and create a space for others to share theirs)
  • Why am I not more vulnerable?
  • Do we have a culture of a lack of vulnerability? How is that helping us? How is that hurting us?
  • What can I do in the next week to elevate my own personal vulnerability?
  • What can I do to create a culture of vulnerability in our team?

Next Steps

Here is something I have learned, you can coach vulnerability all you want, but if those being coached continue to feel self-protective, they won’t transform in this area.

The best approach to enhancing vulnerability in the long run is to focus on vertical development and upgrading leaders’ internal operating systems. If you want to do that, reach out to me here: Connect with Ryan.

If you want to learn more about the importance and power of vulnerability, let me point you in Brené Brown’s direction.

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