Mar 19, 2014

    Leading by showing vulnerability

    WITH the death of Nelson Mandela late last year, the world lost a great leader. However, in the many thousands of obituary words written, one key word was mentioned more than any other: humility.

    Often, the image of a leader is a figure of strength - all-powerful and all-knowing - but the world's respect for Mr Mandela's leadership style shows that a balance of confidence and humility can be even stronger.

    Yet, one of the greatest challenges many leaders struggle with is accepting (and disclosing) their own vulnerabilities. Admitting that you are wrong - or that you alone do not have all the answers - takes genuine courage.


    The rate of change and the scale of growth in Asia over the next decade will demand a new generation of leaders who are not only skilled and knowledgeable, but are also capable of adapting nimbly to challenges in this fast-changing landscape.

    It is a new world we are entering, and one that will demand a more open, inclusive and vulnerable leadership style.

    Mr Mandela's approach to leadership is one that Singapore corporate leaders would do well to emulate.

    Many, however, remain wedded to the traditional hierarchical structure, distinguished by the high "power distance" between omnipotent leaders and their followers.

    In such an environment, any leader confessing to a lack of knowledge or revealing any uncertainty to a subordinate would cause great discomfort to all parties.

    There is an expectation that leaders should conceal their feelings and concerns, and not expose their weaknesses to their followers. After all, a strong leader should always be, well, strong, surely?

    Not so, says latest management thinking from Ms Brene Brown. In fact, you cannot be a truly transformational leader without humility and a willingness to express vulnerability.

    Think of a parent who is under pressure at work and rather short-tempered at home. When the child asks if something is wrong, the authoritarian parent would say, "Everything is fine".

    The child learns nothing and, perhaps, continues to worry. A more open parent might instead say, "I am out of my depth with a new project at work, and I am working hard on a solution. I am just a bit distracted at the moment."

    With the second approach, the child is shown the parent's vulnerability but is also given confidence that the problem will be solved. The second parent is also modelling a healthy approach to dealing with life - and work's - inevitable challenges.

    Indeed, showing vulnerability does not detract from a leader's capacity to inspire people, but rather augments it. As a leader, role modelling that life is an experiment, freely admitting your own shortcomings and learning from your mistakes creates space for others to do the same.

    It is one of the ways we move forward and grow as individuals, and also as workers, no matter our position in the pecking order.


    Critically, expressing vulnerability does not equate to being weak or lacking ambition. Indeed, the strongest leaders in business are focused on constantly learning and strengthening their weaknesses.

    No one is born with all the answers, and there is nothing wrong with admitting that there is always more to be learned.

    Giving oneself (and employees) the freedom to say "I do not know, but I will find out" may be all the more important in many parts of Asia, where the risk is that subordinates will defer to a superior's decisive opinion and fail to develop their own capabilities.

    It is also important to allow subordinates to make their own decisions and to analyse what went right - or wrong - with the final outcome.

    And while it may be tempting for a leader to step in and take over this process, the deepest learning occurs when people make their own decisions and see the consequences for themselves.

    The real challenge lies in fostering a culture that embraces learning from failure. This seems particularly difficult in Asia, where issues of "face" and fear of "failure" have been widely reported, but is less prevalent in the West.

    However, the cultural lines are already starting to blur as more students from Singapore pursue their education overseas, and put their experiences there into practice in the workplace when back at home.

    So what can tomorrow's leaders learn from Mr Mandela? Be genuine, be humble, embrace your vulnerability and get up there and give it your best shot. Learn from others, learn from your failures and celebrate your successes with humility.

    It all goes to make you more human - and better equipped for tomorrow's leadership challenges.


    The writer is an associate professor in the Department of Management and Organisation at NUS Business School. A version of this article will be published on the school's Think Business portal (thinkbusiness.nus.edu).