TRANSPARENCY AND VULNERABILITY ARE NOT THE SAME

by Matt Thomas

Meet Julie and Jake. They are both mid-market CEOs. Julie runs a well funded SaaS company. She co-founded the business with a close friend who has since moved onto another project. Now Julie sits alone at the top of a healthy organization with dry powder, optimistic investors, and a newly formed board of advisors. She recently graced the cover of a popular technology magazine and is celebrated as an up and coming CEO to watch. Her company consistently ranks high on national “Top Places to Work” lists. Julie’s executive team is strong and in a recent company wide leadership evaluation, the feedback was nearly unanimous. Julie’s people love her and they trust her.

Jake leads a large manufacturing operation. He bought the business from his dad 5 years ago, has tripled revenue, and recently acquired two of his biggest competitors. Privately held, the buck starts and stops with Jake. He has a reputation for being aggressive, unpredictable, and charismatic. Last year, Jake turned over half of his executive team for the fourth year in a row. Weekly he scrolls through the glassdoor reviews trying to guess which former employee posted each negative review. For the past two years he has worked with an executive coach focusing primarily on vulnerability in the workplace. He has not made much progress. Jake’s people fear him and they do not trust him.

Other than industry and origin story, what separates these two? They are both bright, driven, and eager to leave their mark on the world. Their organizations have clear vision, values, and strong financial models. From the outside looking in they would both be viewed as tremendous success stories. So what gives?

When Julie’s co-founder departed he offered her some sage advice, “Julie, if you are able to let your people really get to know you, they will do anything for you. This company could really be something special.”

When Julie’s co-founder departed he offered her some sage advice, “Julie, if you are able to let your people really get to know you, they will do anything for you. This company could really be something special.” Julie took his advice to heart and committed to practicing vulnerability, first with her executive team, and then with middle management as appropriate opportunities presented themselves. The byproduct of her efforts? Deep and lasting trust throughout the organization. Her commitment to practicing vulnerability with her executive team trickled its way down through the ranks and has become a culture marker in her business.

When Jake took the reigns from his dad, his father gave him this advice, “Son, don’t let yourself get too close with any of your employees, you never know when you’ll have to fire them.”

When Jake took the reigns from his dad, his father gave him this advice, “Son, don’t let yourself get too close with any of your employees, you never know when you’ll have to fire them.” Jake took his father’s counsel to heart and the result was high turnover in key positions and a cutthroat management approach. Three years in he realized this approach wasn’t working so he hired an executive coach. The coach has encouraged him to be more “vulnerable” with his team. Jake has committed to sharing a personal story at the start of every leadership meeting. For the first 10 minutes or so he’ll divulge intimate details of his personal life, often bordering on inappropriate. The result? His people never know what to expect and trust in his decision making has evaporated.

Both Julie and Jake, in their own ways, let their people into who they are. The difference? Julie practiced vulnerability, while Jake settled for transparency. One of my favorite writers and thinkers, Andy Crouch, defines vulnerability in his book Strong and Weak as “the capacity for meaningful risk.” We use this definition often in our workshops and consulting engagements. What makes risk meaningful? If the outcome is uncertain but likely to deepen a relationship and increase trust, then it’s meaningful. When practicing true vulnerability it is entirely possible that someone may think less of you, but it is just as likely that their respect and admiration for your courage will increase. Crouch continues in his book, “Alternatively, transparency, is a currency of power.” Simply divulging intimate details of our lives is not the same as practicing vulnerability and instead of engendering trust it will likely make people unsure of themselves and of you.

Unfortunately some of the most dynamic leaders I know are wrongly credited with being vulnerable when in reality they are only practicing transparency.

Unfortunately some of the most dynamic leaders I know are wrongly credited with being vulnerable when in reality they are only practicing transparency. An effort that keeps people under their thumb and decreases the opportunity for meaningful relationship. In short, just because you are an “open book” does not mean that you are vulnerable. Loneliness at the top of an organization is quickly becoming a pandemic. Intelligent, charismatic, leaders who go about their days with little meaningful human interaction. If you are the leader of an organization, do not get stuck in the hamster wheel that is transparency masked as vulnerability. There are healthy ways to engage your people and let them get to know the real you. That is, of course, assuming that you know the real you.