Vulnerable leadership in times of change

This week Mike Edwards joins us from his blog with another post about vulnerability.

Think about those areas of your life where you are a leader. I believe we’re all leaders. As a leader the one thing you can count on is to face change on a daily basis. With change comes uncertainty which if you read my last couple posts you know means being vulnerable. As a leader you can choose how you will respond to this vulnerability.

For the past five or more years my career has been going through a transformation. It’s way more than just a change, as I sunk my boat and am now rebuilding it using the best attributes of my old one. Prior to this time I was a good corporate employee working hard to help my employer succeed by driving out uncertainty. In other words, I saw it as my job to create certainty for myself, my boss and my customer. As you may have read in my last post that didn’t always work out so good for me.

Then about 3 years ago now I made the leap off a cliff hoping I could fly as an entrepreneur. I kept reassuring myself that things were going to be OK. I reassured myself with the thought “I have a lot to offer the world so who wouldn’t want me?”. But lets face it … I was facing a significant amount of uncertainty. If I couldn’t find work the impacts could be significant. Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage, put food on the table, or it could delay our retirement plans.

My reaction (without knowing it) was to escape my vulnerability. I would sit down on a daily basis and look for people I could network with. I would then find a number of reasons not to call them. What I now know to be true is I didn’t reach out to them as it made me vulnerable. What if they thought I was an idiot. What if they laughed at me.  What if they just outright rejected me. So in the name of not feeling vulnerable I would not reach out to them. In not reaching out to people I was struggling to find business. In not finding new business I was seeing a bad trend in my business. In seeing this trend I’d tell myself I need to network with people. This just wasn’t going to be a story with a happy ending. All in the name of avoiding vulnerability.

I’m sharing this story about me to show how vulnerability impacted me in a time of change. When I look back on it I can see it clearly, but at the time it wasn’t at all obvious to me. It just seemed like I was doing everything possible to succeed but going nowhere.

This scenario is also true of leaders who are leading change in organizations. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a wholesale transformation where you sink the current boat and build a new one, or you’re just going to rock the boat a bit. If you want to successfully lead your team then you need to embrace uncertainty.

When good leaders start avoiding vulnerability I see behaviours such as:

  • Evaluating team members as problems when they start speaking up about the change. At the most extreme I know one leader who got rid of anyone who spoke out against him
  • Excessively planning the change as if the leader can accurately predict how a chaotic system will respond to the change. In the most extreme I know one leadership team who spent more than 12 months with four teams of five planning a transformation in exhaustive detail to create certainty
  • Responding to poor results in adverse ways rather than seeking to understand the underlying reasons for the outcome. In the most extreme I know of a leader who would yell and scream at team members in hopes of driving away uncertainty

In my story I labeled vulnerability as bad and in the name of trying to eliminate the uncertainty my business was heading towards a cliff. For the leaders in the three real examples above, in the name of wanting certainty in the outcomes they were leading their team towards certain failure (all three have failed to attain the change they wanted).

What is possible if leaders embrace vulnerability?

The one thing I’ve learned as a leader is I cannot control or eliminate uncertainty. I’ve learned embracing vulnerability as a leader means trusting my ability to respond to whatever I encounter. It does not mean my response will always work out, but in that experience I will only have another opportunity to embrace vulnerability.

Embracing vulnerability as a leader does not mean letting go and hoping for the best. For me the best way I can explain it is to point towards The Power CycleTM.  When I approach uncertainty from The Power Cycle™:

  • I look to understand the adversity from an objective stance – no judgement, evaluation or ego to taint my view
  • I become clear about what is real & true about the situation – regardless of what the truth is or what it says about me or my plans
  • I can trust myself as a leader to move forward with vulnerability knowing I/we can respond to what is real & true

The only way I know to lead with vulnerability is to go first. Stop trying to create the perfect plan as it’s just not possible. Focus your effort on being transparent and sharing with those you lead. Start by giving them a guiding star, not some soft story about how we want to move from good to great, just the raw truth. If your company is in financial trouble — tell them. If your product is falling apart at the seems — tell them. Whatever problem is driving your transformation — tell them.

Then provide them leadership and ask for their help on this journey you are about to embark on. Stand with them. Trust them. Embrace the uncertainty you will be feeling as it means the team is learning and growing.

As I’ve learned to be present in my vulnerability it’s become much easier to embrace the uncertainty of being independent. I no longer network with a mindset of being desperate to drive out uncertainty. I now network from my heart and want to help the world around me. The amazing thing for me is how it’s shifted my mindset from lots of scarcity, to nothing but abundance. I no longer stand in my way with leading myself.

When leaders provide vulnerable leadership in times of change great things are possible.



Mike - HeadshotMike is a member of The Leadership Gift Program and professional coach working with people and teams as they design an effective work & personal life. In his 27 year career Mike has held many positions in IT & business across numerous industry sectors. He has led many great teams and always tried to inspire them to be their best. Five years ago Mike altered his career path and started to increasingly take a coaching stance to feed a passion to help others increase their effectiveness.

Mike is a founding board member of Leanintuit, a team of Agile Coaches helping to improve our world. Mike is studying to become a Co-Active Coach with CTI Coaching Institute. Mike speaks and teaches many times each year at conferences and other professional events internationally. Mike shares his thoughts regularly through his blog and enjoys hearing of others experiences.


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Posted in Responsibility on 02/16/2015 01:26 am
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