On Human Connection, Vulnerability and Leadership

Years ago, as a young junior officer in the U.S. Navy, a few hundred of my peers and I shuffled into a large auditorium to hear an admiral speak. I don’t remember his name or his title. But I remember one phrase, one nugget of “wisdom” that he provided. 

He said, “Leaders are people who know stuff.” 

At the time this seemed like a simple, yet compelling insight. And it’s certainly the case that one source of people’s power and influence over others can be their expertise. In many situations, we follow those people who know the most (or at least seem to know the most) about how to solve problems. 

We also tend to follow people who have definitive answers. People who are decisive, outspoken, direct. 

But such tendencies grossly oversimplify the heart of leadership and what it means to connect with our fellow humans. 

The implication of treating leaders and leadership as being about “knowing stuff” is that to be a leader, you need to have all of the answers. You need to know more than the people you’re trying to lead. And your knowledge, therefore, gives you the right to tell those people what to do. 

Sorry, admiral, but this conceptualization of leadership is as sophisticated as my 3.5 year-old son—whom I caught wiping his nose on the couch cushion yesterday. 

Clearly, it’s important to have professional expertise and competence if you want other people to follow you. There’s a great benefit to knowing “stuff,” to building specific sets of knowledge and skill. By all means, do this. 

But leadership at a higher level is all about human connection. And that’s where another set of ideas kick in and truly start to matter. These are topics that often receive less attention than expertise or decisiveness. These include concepts such as

  • Empathy.
  • Compassion.
  • Forgiveness.
  • Vulnerability, and, dare I say … 
  • Love. 

Vulnerability is particularly interesting. Being vulnerable is fundamentally about being open about who you are, your strengths and your weakness. And embracing who you are—not who you think you should be, not who other people want you to be—can be a tremendous source of confidence. It allows people to walk into the unknown, facing the ambiguity that characterizes so many of the problems in this world that require leadership. 

Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has studied this and related topics extensively. And, as she discusses in her popular TEDx talk below, vulnerability is about not only being courageous enough to see ourselves as we truly are, but it’s also about feeling worthy. 

If you’re not one of the more than 26 million people who have already done so, take a few minutes to hear her talk. You won’t regret it. 

Being vulnerable and willing to admit that you’re not perfect opens the door to new possibilities; it opens the door to creating new opportunities in the face of uncertainty. It’s a quality that specifically requires you to admit that sometimes you don’t “know stuff,” that other people might have better ideas than you do. 

And leaders who do that, I think, are uniquely suited to lead others, particularly in times of change or adversity. They still must, of course, be willing to make tough decisions when necessary. They still must, of course, be competent and knowledgeable. 

But thinking that leadership is only about being the smartest person in the room is short-sighted. And it’s fragile. It breaks down quickly when things change. Instead, what’s becoming increasingly clear is that being an agile, adaptive leader in times of turbulence demands courage, authenticity and the confident grace that comes with embracing the unknown. 

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. More at www.benbaran.com and www.agilityconsulting.com