When I was asked by Mr. Godrej and the GCPL Board to take on the responsibility for GCPL a few years back, it was a somewhat atypical choice. Most CEOs in FMCG companies typically come from deep sales and marketing backgrounds. And so, after I assumed the responsibility, I decided to speak openly to my senior team about my lack of deep sales operations experience and seek their support. Some of my colleagues cautioned me against showing my vulnerabilities. But I felt that being open and honest would help me become closer to my team and a more effective leader. After all, all of us have our individual strengths and weaknesses. The best companies are not built around a single individual, but by committed and passionate teams, and with each team member bringing complementary strengths to the table.
As a leader though, willing to accept and show that you are vulnerable is generally uncomfortable and hard. You are taught that you need to have all the answers. You have to be in full control of the situation. Leaders cannot appear “soft”. You are told to be “as tough as nails” to command respect. You have to maintain distance and project a certain image. After all, “you are the boss”.
Yet, being comfortable with being vulnerable, in the right circumstances, can be one of the most important qualities for a leader. Done in the right way, it can connect you with your team at a much deeper level. It can make you a far more authentic and empathetic leader.
So, in my message today, I want to tell you that being vulnerable is not a bad thing. Vulnerability can in fact make you a better leader.
This probably seems rather counterintuitive. While you think of vision or passion or collaboration or influencing as leadership traits, you are probably unlikely to list vulnerability alongside them. Acknowledging and being vulnerable means talking about your weaknesses; all that you find really difficult to do. It is about what keeps you up at night and worries you. And yet, research is increasingly indicating that vulnerability actually ranks right up there, among the most important traits that you need to develop as a leader.
Why is that so? What makes vulnerability so important for leadership?
Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, when once asked what the key to leadership is, said, “The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability… when the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins”.
So, here is what you should know about vulnerability:
1. You are vulnerable
You are vulnerable, whether you like it or not. It is not something that you choose to be or not to be. The question is how much of your time will you spend trying to run away from this.
Vulnerability is intrinsically linked to uncertainty, which in turn, is characteristic of just about every business scenario that we are grappling with today. So, we are vulnerable as a consequence of the kind of work we do and the situations that we manage. Whether it is being able to understand changing market scenarios, our consumers and their needs, innovate faster, take risks, try out new technologies – this all requires us to (un)learn. That means putting yourself out there and being okay with being proved wrong. So, the first step is really to acknowledge that you are vulnerable. That you do need to learn more. Then, build from there. As David K Williams points out in his article, The Best Leaders Are Vulnerable, “To declare oneself ‘not vulnerable’ would be inauthentic and would leave a leader living in a perpetual state of denial and stress.”
2. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you are weak
The biggest reason why you worry about opening up and sharing what makes you vulnerable, is arguably, that it could make you weak. Worse, other people will start thinking you are weak. You could even have your vulnerabilities played on. How would this impact your success?
If you are feeling any or all of this, you are not alone. But know this – vulnerability, much more than making you weak, actually makes you stronger and much happier. As researcher Dr. Brené Brown shares, “My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity, to name a few.” Do watch her TED talk, The power of vulnerability (https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en#) when you get the chance.
It takes people who are very grounded and comfortable with who they are – and also rather brave – to admit their vulnerabilities. It is also the same people who realise that rather than fighting fear and shame, and instead, by being open about not being perfect, they can transfer energy to working on their personal growth and really making a difference.
3. Being vulnerable makes you more humble
At Godrej, we strongly value humility. Being able to admit that you don’t have all the answers and that you will be only as good as what you do next, is intrinsic to being a great leader. It is only when you are okay with saying that you don’t know something or that you could have been wrong or that you need help – that you will be open to feedback. That is how you will become more collaborative and appreciative of diverse points of view.
4. You don’t need to share everything with everyone
Let’s say you are deciding to be more open and talk more freely about what makes you feel vulnerable. Who should you be opening up to? Typically, this would be a close friend or mentor whom you trust. But what about when it comes to your workplace? Given that here, the objective is to be able to address a concern, your approach needs to be different.
Start by determining what it is that are you trying to achieve by being upfront. For example, do you want your team to understand your problem and partner better? If so, then share the information with them – the people who will actually determine impact. Tell them what they need to know to be able to collaborate better. You don’t need to tell everyone everything. What is more important here, is that you tell the right people enough for them to be able to understand you and the situation better, so that you can together, be more effective overall.
5. Being vulnerable allows you to empathise better
The reason why vulnerability is so powerful, is because it allows you to be your whole, authentic self. And by doing so, you are able to connect more deeply and more meaningfully with other people. This connect is what fosters trust, allows other people to drop their guard and most importantly, encourages empathy.
Rather than driving the illusion of an infallible leader, show how it is perfectly okay to be human. To be scared and excited, unsure and looking for help. As human beings, we are strongly geared towards picking up on non-verbal indicators. So, even if you think you are doing a good job of hiding your vulnerabilities, there is a good chance that you may not be. And that people may be picking up on that. That makes you come across as inauthentic. It makes people less likely to want to be authentic with you.
So, make the change. Do it, and your team members and colleagues will be more likely to do the same with you. It will, in turn, create a larger culture, which is appreciative of diversity and limitations, and willing to look for solutions, instead of being scared by them and of failure.
6. Vulnerability primes you for success
The tricky thing about being a leader (and a successful one at that too) is that chasing success becomes a vicious cycle in itself. Each time you succeed, the stakes rise. You end up pushing yourself to better your past performance. And while that in itself isn’t a problem, it doesn’t leave you with much room for failure. It becomes much harder for you to want to be vulnerable and show your shortcomings. That doesn’t benefit you in the longer run, given we need to learn how to thrive in uncertainty. Brown’s research emphasises how vulnerability is in fact, what drives innovation, creativity and change. As she puts it, “In cultures where failure is not an option, neither is innovation”.
It will take a fair bit of introspection, biases aside, for you to really think through how comfortable you are with being vulnerable. Take the time. Ask yourself what it is that holds you back. Is it the fear of being thought not good enough? Are you okay with opening up to some people and not others? How does it make you feel when you think someone is doing much the same to you? And what are you going to do about it? This is deeply personal. It impacts who you fundamentally are as a person. So, understandably, making this change will require time, effort and practice. It will also be uncomfortable. But it can be incredibly fulfilling.
To borrow from Haruki Murakami, in his highly acclaimed novel, Norwegian Wood:
“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.”
I look forward to hearing your stories.