When it comes to thinking about great leaders, I’ve been conditioned to immediately zero in on characteristics that reflect a strong personality– traits like confidence, decisiveness, vision, and fortitude. But are these “strong” traits enough to be successful today?
There are countless leaders across industries that match this description of strength – from Steve Jobs to Jack Welch to George Patton to Vince Lombardi, and Mark Zuckerburg. There’s no emotional coddling coming from this group – only an expectation of greatness and drive.
But over the course of the last few years, these strong personality leadership traits have started to feel incomplete. Command and control leadership has fallen out of favor amongst the creative class. In the creative space, intrinsic motivation reins supreme, making one thing crystal clear: Modern leadership demands more than traditional traits of strength.
But more what? Confidence? Nah. There’s more than enough of that to go around – especially in start-ups, where founders are conditioned to sell confidence, even in the face of overwhelming facts in the opposite direction. And we’re all exhausted by hearing the start-up founder spouting off on how great his company is doing, even hours before its collapse.
But there’s good reason for the chest-puffing confidence amongst founders. Consider: If a founder goes to an investor confident in their current financial status – and only seeking money to grow the business because they WANT the money, success is likely. If that same entrepreneur goes to an investor in the exact same situation – but in this case not confident in your current runway where you NEED money– the odds of getting funded decrease dramatically. And customers are no different. Doing business with an early stage business is a risk and if the founder isn’t confident in their company’s success, why the hell would a customer be confident a being a start-up customer – with all the extra risk?
So, let’s be clear: confidence is an important trait, but the average start-up founder has plenty of confidence to go around.
The trait that really differentiates the modern leader?
Yes, vulnerability. So go ahead and share the obstacles you’re working to overcome in a productive way.
Innately, as humans, we’re programmed to help one another. No different than dogs, we are pack animals, enjoying life through the help and society of others.
So, what’s this mean for you and me?
Simply put, exposing a healthy dose of personal & professional vulnerability will endear you to others and make those around you, your pack, want to work harder to make you successful.
Recently, a colleague shared they have been dealing with anxiety and mental health issues for a long time. They shared their transition away from medication and explained what they needed to stay fit with their mental health. I immediately appreciated the situation my colleague was in, felt a more meaningful personal connection between the two of us, and proceeded to optimize work conditions and schedules to set this person up for success.
By parting the curtains to unveil a bona fide vulnerability, we’re giving those around us an opening to make a positive difference in our lives. Without this opening, most people won’t change their actions to help. In fact, over time they might start to negatively view you for some of your vulnerabilities – or the symptoms you express to others as part of your vulnerability. I’ve seen this play out a million times. By the time vulnerability is shared, after an issue, it’s viewed as an excuse or bullshit.
Vulnerability Versus Weakness
So then why don’t people expose their vulnerabilities? First, it’s not comfortable and people are slow to move beyond their comfort zone, even if they know true growth only comes from discomfort. Second, too many of us are worried about showing weakness. And the fear of weakness is that someone else will exploit this. The fear is real. If you play tennis and someone has a bad backhand, you’ll immediately start hitting the ball to his or her backhand. But that’s a weakness, not a vulnerability.
Vulnerability is not weakness. Weakness happens when you question your abilities or put yourself down without a link to achievement or goal setting. Vulnerability, on the other hand, is about honest and open communication outlining the hardships that must be overcome to achieve something.
As a first-time start-up founder, I struggled with sharing my own vulnerabilities. I took on a lot of burdens and had a lot of concerns, but rarely communicated how I was trying to overcome a feeling of isolation. Ironically, the few times I did express vulnerabilities, the team quickly rallied to make good things happen. Yet I still viewed sharing these vulnerabilities as a sign of weakness, at least subconsciously.
Strength and confidence are necessary traits for a successful leader. Without confidence, you’ve got a tough uphill battle. But with confidence plus communicated vulnerability, you’ve got a magic elixir of sorts. Opening up about your vulnerabilities can be scary, but often quite powerful in ways that are tough to predict.
So go ahead and share those vulnerabilities and allow yourself to come across as human and relatable. After all, growth only comes from discomfort.
And one more thing: we both know that you don’t have all the answers, so don’t bullshit your way and pretend like you do.
Be authentic. Be vulnerable. Be a modern leader of today’s creative class.