Leading with vulnerability might get you fired… or beheaded

Published by Peter on

I know this from personal experience: leading with vulnerability might get you fired.

But leading without vulnerability doesn’t exist.

Statue of Sir Henry Vane in the foyer of the Boston Public Library. The caption says Sir Henry Vane
Born 1612 - Beheaded 1662
"An ardent defender of civil liberty and advocate of free thought in religion. He maintained that God, Law, and Parliament are superior to the King." (leading with vulnerability can get you beheaded)
Sir Henry Vane
Born 1612 – Beheaded 1662
“An ardent defender of civil liberty and
advocate of free thought in religion. He maintained that God, Law, and Parliament
are superior to the King.”
Statue in the Boston Public Library
Photo: Peter Dudley

Leadership is by its very nature a risky thing

What exactly is leading with vulnerability anyway? Merriam-Webster defines vulnerable as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, or open to attack or damage.” Sounds bad. Sounds like something a leader would want to avoid.

And unfortunately, a lot of leaders work very hard to avoid personal vulnerability.

I’ve worked for people who took risks and people who avoided risk. I’ve worked for people who looked at mistakes as growth opportunities, people who punished mistakes, and people who were so afraid of mistakes that they almost never made any decisions at all.

Every one of them understood that they were the decision-makers. No matter the outcome, the responsibility was theirs.

Leading with vulnerability might get you fired, but leading without vulnerability doesn’t exist.

Invulnerability is unattainable

I once worked for someone who strived for invulnerability. She didn’t realize this was what she was doing; she just thought she was being prudent and responsible. To make even the smallest decision that didn’t come directly from her boss, she had to know that it was 100% unassailable, bullet-proof, ironclad, defensible. She would only support an idea if she knew she had no personal risk in promoting it.

Once, my team put together a proposal to change how we delivered a particular program. It was a good proposal, with input and approval from all stakeholders. All we needed was my boss to sign off and get her boss to approve the budget. But instead of what I figured would be a rubber-stamp approval, all I got back were questions. Questions the proposal already answered.

My boss’ need for personal invulnerability created a dysfunctional environment for the team.

We went round and round like this for three months, until I finally had to demand a decision: Approve it, or kill it. It got approved, of course, because it was a good proposal. It turned out very successful, and everyone was happy.

My boss’ need for her own personal invulnerability created a dysfunctional environment for the team. That proposal was merely delayed, but other work got completely derailed or never even happened at all.

Instead of being led forward with support for good ideas, honest discussion, and reasonable risk-taking, the team began to falter under the weight of unreasonable expectations, roadblocks to every idea, and divisive finger-pointing where there had once been strong team cohesion, trust, and respect.

I ended up quitting that job in frustration. Nearly everyone I worked closely with was also gone a year later. Except the boss.

Owning personal vulnerability as a leader

At another job, I worked for a guy who thought creativity and quality came from conflict. He treated his staff like gladiators in the arena—bring your best idea, then fight it out to see which wins. There’s an honesty in an approach like that, I’ll admit. But when your employees get so mad they throw glass bottles at each other, leaving holes in the conference room walls, you may be overdoing the conflict part.

The irony of this is that when he eventually fired me, he told me his reason was that he thought I had “become his adversary.”

When a choice is not a choice

I was leading a team of software developers at a startup. For months, I’d been telling my boss that the schedule he was presenting to the CEO was, to be frank, utter bullshit. So of course, the day came when he could no longer rely on his magical thinking. It was clear his schedule was unachievable. So he called the team into a conference room and gave us each a choice.

“You can work Saturday, or you can work Sunday, but you’re now on a six day work week.”

No additional compensation. No stock options. Just more effort.

I’d worked for startups for ten years. I knew the culture, the risks, the rewards, and I’d even pitched venture capitalists. Although I’d co-founded and shut down two companies, I’d also benefited from an IPO and a buyout. I wasn’t a naive, entitled prima donna. And I didn’t have enough savings to go long without a job.

So, I refused his demand to work six days a week. It was wrong, especially since I’d been telling him for months that his projections were bad.

His response, which I will never forget, was this: “I don’t want to say I’m crazy and I have a gun, but I’m crazy and I have a gun.” We all understood it metaphorically, of course. He meant that he would have no problem firing anyone who didn’t do as they were told.

He had created a problem for himself by pushing impossible schedules. Now the question was where he could place the blame.

It wasn’t better in a year.

Failing to take responsibility for your own errors

Soon, he came to me and demanded that I fire one of our programmers, “Bob,” a friend of mine who’d been doing a good job. “Bob’s not pulling his weight,” my boss claimed.

Again, I knew he was wrong. This action was wrong. Bob was doing a great job, working hard, innovating against difficult problems. Thus, I refused to fire Bob.

My boss said we would talk more about it after his business trip. A week later, his first morning back in the office, he called me into a conference room.

“I feel like you’ve become an adversary,” he told me as he slid my two week’s severance check across the table. (This literally happened. He slid the check across the table. Just like in a bad movie.) He was so hung up on his own appearance of invulnerability that he couldn’t see that I’d been working for the good of the team, the good of the project, and the good of the company. I was working for the good of him. He didn’t see that he was, in fact, his own adversary.

When he later told the staff I’d no longer be working there, he said that the CEO had demanded accountability for the “missed deliverables,” and that my boss and I had mutually agreed that I should “take the fall.” For the record, I never agreed to anything like that.

Later that day, he also fired Bob. Less than a year after that, the company was out of business.

What leading with vulnerability actually means

One of those two bosses tried to make herself invulnerable by refusing to make decisions. Another tried to make himself invulnerable by deflecting blame for his errors onto others. Neither understood how they were creating a toxic, dysfunctional environment that was stifling and fracturing their teams.

I’m sure I could have done better than I did as the subordinate in both scenarios. I’ve thought a lot about those situations and taken many lessons from them. Both situations escalated over time, and as I reflect on the buildups, I see moments where I could have made different decisions that might have delayed the ultimate breakdowns. But without those leaders changing their approach, the breakdowns were inevitable in some form.

In one case, I left a dysfunctional situation that had destroyed my ability to lead my team. In the other, I stood up against demands that I knew were wrong.

So what’s the lesson?

You no doubt have noticed that in both cases, I was the one who ended up out of a job. And both bosses kept their jobs. So, is the lesson that you should just watch out for yourself and learn how to blame others for your mistakes?

Well, that’s not what I learned.

I don’t regret leaving that first job, even though I had no backup plan. And I don’t regret getting fired from the other job; my conscience is clear and my integrity intact.

I compare these stories to the other times in my career when I worked for truly great leaders (and there were many). I see that the great leaders owned their personal vulnerability. Those leaders made mistakes, and they took responsibility for their mistakes. They gave their team permission to try, which meant they risked loss and failure. They also told their teams “no” sometimes, which meant they risked hurting some feelings.

The best of them did it with as much transparency, candor, and compassion as they could.

That is what leading with vulnerability looks like.

Becoming a better leader

If you want to become a better leader, email me or set up some time to talk.


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