It’s June 2023 and the Manufacturers’ Alliance (the business I founded and am the Managing Director of) is celebrating its 10 year anniversary. We had our annual conference last month, and in preparation for the opening words for such an occasion, I spent considerable time reflecting on what I have learned from the hundreds of inspiring leaders I’ve had the privilege to work with. I considered sharing a top 5 or top 10 lessons in leadership, but as I started to compile the list, I noticed something emerging. The leaders that have inspired me the most all behaved in a way that traced back to one fundamental cause… vulnerability.
I know what you’re thinking. How can showing weakness be inspiring? And I get it. I have been there myself, and still am to a degree with some areas of vulnerability. But it’s true I’m afraid. Vulnerability inspires people. So, what I have listed below are the top 5 things I have learned, and the areas of vulnerability that I believe lead to a step change in leadership performance.
1. Be the authentic you.
It’s unfortunate that some people in leadership and management roles feel the need to have two personalities. A work personality and non-work personality. And these two worlds are kept very separate. The friendly, caring, and adventurous person outside of work, parks that approachable nature when they walk into work and become a complete asshole. Baffling, but we allow and see this all too often. People play a role, and we know they are being far from authentic.
We know deep in our hearts when someone is not being authentic. We’re not sure what it is that’s happening, but something just doesn’t feel right. They are acting in a way that deep down; we know they are not being real. And sometimes this is just down to a lack of self-awareness. Nobody has ever told them this before. And how would you? How do you tell someone they are acting weird, and you don’t know what it is that they are doing?
We are born authentic. And in our formative years try our very best to stay authentic. Observe any young person under 5 years of age. They are playful and curious. They say what they want to say and do what they want to do, but the world says no. Stop doing that. Stop asking that. Start doing this. This is good. This is bad. And by the age 7, we are programmed by the people around us with a set of beliefs that form our character and values. Not much choice at such a young age. Some are lucky and get a decent programme written for them. Some less so and receive a faulty programme.
I was given a programme with a few glitches. I wasn’t aware that my programme was faulty. I reached my mid 30’s and was driven by chasing fame and fortune. I wanted status and to earn lots of money. I wanted to learn about leadership and become the ‘perfect’ leader. A leader that was bulletproof and had no flaws. Firmly believing that vulnerability was a weakness.
As has been the case my whole life, I met someone who was kind enough to pull me to one side and offer me a bit of feedback. It was the “your acting weird feedback”. They offered some feedback on the suit and tie I was wearing, the hiding behind huge PowerPoint slides of knowledge, and my obsession with work. They said, “It doesn’t seem like the real you”. And they provided a safe enough space for me to say, it isn’t. I don’t like wearing a suit, I much prefer conversation and doing stuff to PowerPoint, and I have a great life away from work, I just don’t share it with people I work with.
Pretty immediately I changed. I showed up as me. Checked shirt and chinos. Post-it notes and paper under my arm. Stopped chasing the money. Sharing more of myself with the world. And to that person, Mr. Woodvine, I will be eternally grateful.
I shifted my focus to what I was passionate about, my core values from when I was a young lad, and what I felt my purpose was in the world. I’m lucky. I think I have always known myself reasonably well and found change relatively easy. I love helping other people to grow and develop, deep relationships in work are hugely important to me, I love adventure and exploring new things, and making bold moves that transform things in a way that people say… Wow! So, I just started to focus on what I was passionate about and dropped the mask.
I’m still a work in progress when it comes to being the authentic me. I think I always will be. The quest to learn everything about yourself is a lifelong journey that you never reach the summit of. So, any opportunities I get to learn more about myself I snap it up.
Wherever you are on your authenticity journey, I would just say keep going. Some phases of your journey will be a step change. Others will be steady increments. But you won’t become more authentic and lead better if you don’t put the effort in and become more vulnerable. Some feedback you receive will be uplifting and feel good. Some feedback will smart and hurt a bit. But you are best knowing how you are being received by others. Leadership is all about people and human connection. You won’t get this if you are not authentic and refuse to be vulnerable.
2. Take personal risks.
You see risky behaviour in a lot of entrepreneurial leaders. They are happy to take risks and gamble the future of the business with their bold moves. Most of us take the risk of edging over the speed limit now and again. Some of us will take illegal drugs. Some of us drink alcohol or eat food to excess, putting our health at risk. But the kind of risk I am alluding to is different.
Personal risks are more aligned with taking a leap of faith and doing something outside of your comfort zone. Which by nature will be uncomfortable. Doing something differently. Changing something about yourself. Obviously changing something for the better, so your team performance improves. Taking a leap of faith and doing something different.
Why bother doing something uncomfortable? Because on the other side of your comfort zone, in the uncomfortable space we all avoid, lies the heart of innovation, real human connection and your growth and maturity as a person. The learning zone. When you demonstrate this as a leader, it sets the tone for your team to try new things, even when it’s uncomfortable. Can you image a culture in a business where nobody ever did anything that made them feel uncomfortable?
Cast a shadow over your business that promotes failure. Trying new things, getting them wrong, and learning from them. Be OK with the feeling discomfort and say to your team, “good for you… well done for giving something new a go.” Create a safe space for people to show up and be comfortable with discomfort.
The first personal risk I took this year was to ask for help with something that I didn’t know what the problem was. I hadn’t been feeling great and not myself. I felt down, lonely and like I was doing a rubbish job at work. So, I reached out to a therapist for support. An engineer asking for help to solve a problem, that he didn’t know what the problem was. Very uncomfortable.
The second personal risk I took in the same area, was to share my therapy journey with everyone around me. My family, friends, my team, customers, suppliers, even complete strangers. I wasn’t sure when the right time would be to share. When I’m ‘fixed’? When it felt right? When someone asked me? I wasn’t sure, but decided to share right from the start of the journey and keep people posted on how I was doing. And for those that were curious, what was going on in the sessions, and how it was affecting me.
Asking for help and talking about myself are not things that come natural to me. I’m independent and don’t like to burden others. I would also much rather help and listen to others than talk about me.
I don’t have any words of wisdom on taking personal risks, other than… just do it. It will be uncomfortable. If it’s not, you’re probably still playing it safe. Just go for it. We learn and grow from adversity. The rewards are always on the other side.
3. Ask for help.
It’s unfortunate, but some people would rather lose ‘everything’, than ask for help. Whatever that person’s definition of ‘everything’ is will be lost and gone forever. And they know it. But they will not show that level of vulnerability and ask for help.
Some examples I have seen, have been:
· businesses struggling to make an adequate profit and at risk of being put into administration if nothing changes.
· close personal relationships at a stage that they will end if nothing changes.
· physical, emotional and mental health at a stage of crisis.
· dynamics within leadership teams that are completely toxic, but the owner or MD will not reach out for help.
· leaders that are stuck, and don’t know how to grow or change their businesses for the better, but continue to do what they’ve always done.
You get the picture. Things are well off track, but the person will not ask for help. There is a feeling of being stuck, and not knowing what to do. A loneliness. A feeling of pressure to solve the problem yourself, and continue down the track you are on until you find a solution.
By not asking for help, you are removing the opportunity for a helper to gain fulfillment. The world is full of helpers. People who tell us to reach out if we ever need them. They would be thrilled to receive the call… “could I ask for your help with something?” It would be music to their ears.
As I said earlier in the article, I asked for help recently and it has been brilliant for me. And I think the thing that held me back was fear. My fear was a fear of my emotions. I knew what would happen when I asked for help, and that would be that I would have to confront a few things that would be emotional. And I didn’t want that. For a while I kicked the can down the road and tried to solve it myself. It didn’t work and things were getting progressively worse. I had to be vulnerable and ask for help. And I had to face my fear.
I am getting better at asking for help, but I’m definitely not cured. I notice myself now not doing it. I’m struggling with something. I’m feeling stuck. Instead of this going on and on, I notice the stuckness (this is a new word I’ve invented) and ask someone to help me.
There are no guarantees with being vulnerable. The person I ask may say no. They may say they are too busy. They may respond in a way that I don’t want them to. But it’s not going to stop me. I will just ask someone else until I find someone who can help.
4. Be emotionally whole.
We humans are emotional beings. We are social animals that thrive from human connection. In a study carried out by Harvard, it has been proven that the secret to a long life is having good quality relationships. And for quality relationships to emerge and grow, we need to understand our own and other people’s emotions.
As an owner or senior leader in an organisation, it’s all about people. Motivating, inspiring and supporting the people around you. One thing that makes this much easier is if you understand your own and others’ emotions, and work on becoming emotionally whole.
By emotionally whole, I mean accessing the full spectrum of emotions we have access to, and not shutting off certain emotions because you don’t like them. The more shutting off you do, the less access you get to the whole spectrum of emotions available. Unfortunately, you can’t selectively numb emotions, so when you push an emotion down, it takes others down with it too.
People in our organisations want to work with authentic and accessible leaders that are willing to be vulnerable and show up authentically. Not some fake persona that makes everyone feel weird around you.
My challenge with being emotionally whole stems from childhood. I grew up at a time when it was wrong for boys to cry. My dad wanted a masculine son, so would express his strong disappointment with me if he ever caught me crying. I could have fallen and cut my knee open, I could have been nervous or anxious about something, or just feeling emotional. Not allowed in our household. Which became normal, and at the same time confusing.
It’s 40 years later and I’m now starting to understand how this has affected me, and how I have developed an internal switch to knock off my emotions should I ever feel them rising to the surface too much. This had been a habit of mine that had become subconscious and was stopping me from having access to the full spectrum of emotions we have available to us.
So, now I have stopped doing it. I feel the sensation in my chest as emotions rise and allow them straight past the switch and out into the open. I feel much more alive. I have experienced deep sadness, but also deep joy. Highs that I have not experienced for a long time. Emotions that I have not felt for a long time. The switch is still there as a back up, but I’m good with being more emotional, so that I can fully experience life.
I’m right at the start of the journey with being more emotionally whole, and will have many moments ahead of being vulnerable to move to the next stage. I believe it improving how I connect with others are giving them permission to be more emotionally vulnerable too.
5. Be courageous.
Courage is a more masculine and socially acceptable word for vulnerability, even though I believe they are two sides of the same coin. You need to be courageous to be vulnerable. We all love the heroes in films that show courage. They have us sat on the edge of our seats when they are pushing their own boundaries of vulnerability. To the point that we think… oh no… they’re not going to make it. They took a leap of faith, and we can’t see how it would be humanly possible to succeed. And they do. They have their own personal battles and vulnerabilities to overcome, and they make it to the other side. The hero saves the day.
Courage to me is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Your body, mind and soul are overwhelmed, but you still do it. That’s courage. If you are not feeling a sense of vulnerability, then it’s not courage.
Brene Brown has a great quote… “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.” Would you allow yourself to let go of control and be courageous (even when there are no guarantees of the outcome)?
There is an exposure and feeling of risk with wholehearted vulnerability. You are behaving and sharing parts of yourself that sets your heart racing. Your palms are sweating. Your stomach fills with anxiety. You feel the doubt rising. But you still do it. No guarantee that the outcome you are hoping for will come to fruition. That’s courage. That’s being vulnerable. Feel the fear and… do it!
Learning to be more vulnerable is a journey. You can’t reach the summit with vulnerability. Life and the world around us continues to evolve and set us challenges and learning opportunities. We should embrace these challenges as opportunities to explore ourselves deeper and find out who we really are. Go for it. Be vulnerable. It’s not a weakness.
You can’t just copy and paste what others are doing. Your journey is unique to you, and it will be uncomfortable. Openly talk to others about your experiences but go your own way. Stay true to yourself. It will lead to personal transformation for you and a sense of fulfillment that will be deep and meaningful.
Leading with your whole heart leads to true human connection, and a workplace where people can be themselves, learn to feel fulfilled & meet their full potential. And who wouldn’t want that to be the legacy they leave.
This article has been written by Gary Sheader, Founder & Managing Director of The Manufacturers’ Alliance. Gary and his team support ambitious leaders within the manufacturing industry, with the ideas, tools and personal development to grow, lead and improve their businesses authentically.