Leadership: The Power of Vulnerability

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When we think of characteristics of a strong leader, they usually orient around qualities like assertiveness, confidence, and talent. How is it then, that vulnerability is so important?

Our boards and administrations are seemingly in a race to be the best. But not the right kind of best. How much of this rhetoric sounds familiar (even if it’s normally left unstated)?

“When I take over, I’m going to show them…”

“I want to prove I can do this without that person’s help”

This leads people down a brazen road where board members who aren’t qualified for something stubbornly take control over it. Someone that is not detail oriented, and has never done accounting work before, suddenly wants to manage all the masjid finances. People with no formal religious training want to take away religious authority from their imam (think moon-sighting), and micro-manage what classes or programs will be done for the religious benefit of the community at large. One of the most lamentable examples is when a board member suddenly deems themselves worthy of giving khutbah despite not having training, knowledge, or even basic speaking skills.

This inability to admit – and deal with – one’s own weaknesses breeds resentment from those in the community who are more qualified. In the examples above, think about the reaction that someone who is qualified in these areas will feel? Especially when they share in leadership positions. A person may be well experienced in a certain arena, but will be ignored due to some kind of petty politics or a power play.

This resentment erodes unity, and destroys loyalty. This is a perfect storm for nasty politics.

The problem comes back to leadership. Vulnerability is, as Patrick Lencioni says, the most important leadership trait you shun:

Whether we’re talking about leadership, teamwork or client service, there is no more powerful attribute than the ability to be genuinely honest about one’s weaknesses, mistakes and needs for help. Nothing inspires trust in another human being like vulnerability — there is just something immensely attractive and inspiring about humility and graciousness.

When a manager can admit that one of his employees has better skills in a given area than he does, or a team member acknowledges that she needs help from a peer, or a consultant admits that he doesn’t know the answer to a client’s problem, it sends a powerful message about their confidence and trustworthiness. It builds loyalty and commitment more than anything else. That’s not to say that competence isn’t important; it’s just that without honesty and humility, it has limited potential.

And yet, few business people actively strive to grow in vulnerability, wanting instead to project strength and confidence to the people they lead, work with and serve. Ironically, they are limiting their potential for success. That’s because it’s not the smartest or most competent leaders, teammates and service providers that are the most successful ones. If that were the case, success would be much easier to predict than it is. In reality, the most successful people are those who achieve a required or minimum level of competence, and then enhance that with as much trust-inspiring vulnerability as they can.

For those who are skeptical about the power of vulnerability, it is helpful to apply the concept to matters of social and interpersonal effectiveness. We all know someone who is immensely talented or intelligent but who is too insecure to recognize and acknowledge his limitations. Being around that person is painful, and he ends up having a minimal impact on friends and family in spite of his considerable talents. If you could redesign that person for maximum happiness, success and impact in life, you’d gladly trade off much of his skills for a greater sense of vulnerability. Deep down inside, he would too.

Today, we are reminded constantly of the power, and fear, of vulnerability. In business and politics we watch leader after leader defend themselves, deny responsibility for mistakes, and reject offers of assistance seemingly unaware that the long term impact of their defensiveness is a growing distrust among the very people whose support and loyalty they need.

Leaders are not courageous because they spend hours volunteering and trying to do things they can’t truly handle. Leaders are courageous when they’re able to acknowledge their own shortcomings, give up some control, and ask the right person for help no matter how it makes them feel.

Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters, Qalam Institute, Muslim Strategic Initiative, and Debt Free Muslims. He is a regular khateeb and has served in different administrative capacities in various national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow him on Google+ or on Twitter @ibnabeeomar.

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