Leaders need to show appropriate vulnerability

It really is ok, to admit you are not super-human.

I have spent most of my working life either subjecting others to, or being subjected to, vastly varying levels of effective leadership.

I have been fortunate to be part of a long research project dealing with this complex issue and am only now beginning to link events of the past to current research and beginning to make some sense of it.

On reflection, I now realise I can identify some of the leadership behaviours which were very effective at a given time. The effectiveness was of course dependent upon the situation I found myself in, and the people I was in the situation with.

This was particularly evident during my time in the Royal Navy. I was always amazed at the difference a good captain could make to the morale and performance of a warship. I can clearly remember what happened in every occasion when the captain was replaced at the end of his tour of duty. I witnessed this several times and was mystified why just changing one person could have such a positive or negative effect on the ship’s company. After all, they were usually the same rank with the same level of experience, so why the big change?

There is little doubt that a great boss can create a great place to be. The inverse is also true. A bad boss can create a living hell to endure. It is easy to recognise which situation you would like to evoke as a leader. But much more difficult to understand just how you need to behave to create it.

The recent rigorous and lengthy research project I was involved in looked at the subject of inspiring leadership very closely. The grounded research used a unique platform in the shape of a round the world yacht race to collect data.

The research was pure in the respect that all the yachts were identical as was the route and the crews. In research terms there were no outside contaminating factors. The findings were very clear. The Skippers that were consistently at the front of the fleet were obviously doing something different to those at the back.

I was one of the skippers during that race trying to understand how, what, when and why effective leadership worked or did not as the case may be.

One of the research findings was a real eye-opener for me. It stated that vulnerability was an inspiring leadership essential. That is to say that admitting mistakes and showing weaknesses was a good practice. It kind of went against the grain, especially to a product of the Royal Navy Leadership School.

The thought of standing on the yacht at Cape Horn looking at the vast blackness of the Southern Ocean admitting I was scared was a totally alien concept for me. Of course the findings went on to show that, that would not have been appropriate. You needed to be careful as to what you decided to disclose.

I realise now that one of the very first experiences I had in my naval training was to prove this very point. We were on exercise of part of our Leadership Training. The finale was a four-mile hike through a forest at midnight at two-minute intervals. For safety there was an instructor stationed at every mile. The guy we all idolised, the guy we all wanted to be was at mile three. He was the walking embodiment of the perfect leader to us. All the girls fancied him all the guys wanted to be him. His name was Robbie Robinson.

Typical of him, he was not satisfied just waiting until we all walked by, he had gone out of his way and climbed a tree with a fishing rod to which he had attached a large dead rat with the notion of lowering it down onto the unsuspecting boys as they walked by. He was in traditional naval instructor kit which included a duffel coat redolent of Jack Hawkins in the Cruel Sea.

I did not know any of this of course and was plodding along when suddenly the guy who was two minutes ahead of me was running towards me obviously terrified. It was a shock to say the least, but this was a leadership programme and I decided to walk on, thinking that maybe it was a test. I took another five paces and to my absolute horror Robbie was running towards me obviously terrified too. I didn’t need any explanation; I immediately turned and ran like hell. The funny thing was I didn’t even know what I was running from. I was operating on the absolute belief that if it scared Robbie it was going to terrify me.

We all ended up at the previous instructor’s post very out of breath. It transpired that an owl had flown over Robbie at the precise moment he was about to frighten the guy in front of me. The owl had a large hare in its grasp when it was obviously startled at finding a man up its tree with a fishing rod. Presumably this was not a common occurrence. The owl in its confused state dropped the live hare from a great height and it landed squarely in the hood of Robbie’s duffel coat.

Robbie, completely shocked had come out of the tree like a bolt of lightning, running away from a monster with claws and teeth which was hell bent on savaging him. Robbie had no idea it was a hare just trying to get out from his hood. We fell about laughing on discovery of the hare. Robbie was quite open about his fright.

It is only now that I realise that his disclosure, that he was scared and was a human being just like me, was the greatest boost to my confidence as a young leader.

It really is ok to admit you are not super human.


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