Making Vulnerability an Asset

“We ran off the last thee clowns, and now they’re sending us a woman. Give us a break.” That was the statement of many of the construction crew for a major building project. Sherry Dotson had just been named their project manager.

On Sherry’s first day at work she came dressed like a construction worker. That was different from what the crews were used to. The three previous project managers wore dress pants and ties. They rarely left the construction trailer. Sherry was their opposite.

The first thing she did was to join the crew while they worked. She wasn’t embarrassed to ask questions and she didn’t pretend to have the answers when workers complained about something that wasn’t the way it should be. “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” was her standard response. And she did, often by having a solution that made the job better.

Sherry joined the crews as they ate lunch. She asked a lot of questions to get insights. Often her questions may have revealed her vulnerability, but they weren’t taken that way by the crews. In fact, they enjoyed when someone actually asked them what they thought. Sherry used the insights to improve work practices.

When Sherry met with crews during their Monday stand-up meetings, she would often tell them about a concern that higher-level management brought to her attention. She would then say: “I don’t have all the answers. What do you guys think?” Again she was expressing her vulnerability, and the crews loved it. Finally they had a project manager who listened and then acted.

We often think that showing our vulnerability is a weakness, but in reality it can be a strength. People who pretend they have the answers are quickly revealed to be phonies. The challenge is to make vulnerability an asset.

You can do that by asking questions that are genuine and purposeful. Often these questions convert vulnerability into an exploration of ways to improve current practices.

You can also make vulnerability an asset by making others comfortable in telling you what they really think. Those who are displaying their vulnerability make it comfortable for others who would otherwise be afraid to speak up.

Finally, making yourself vulnerable makes you a human. It’s a way of building connections. It diffuses the power barriers that often exist in relationships. But vulnerability needs to be genuine, not putting on an act. The ability to be vulnerable is one of the most valuable leadership traits but also one of the least used.

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“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” – Brené Brown

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