I was having dinner with a friend, a very successful consultant, whom I hadn't seen for quite a while. As we munched on a Caesar salad, I talked about my research on successful women. "I asked myself, what did these women, from many walks of life, share in common?" I told my friend. "What I discovered really surprised me. And because it surprised me, I knew I could trust this finding. A secret to these women's success, I realized, had to do with how they dealt with vulnerability, their own and others'. They were able to transform vulnerabilities into strengths." My friend leaned back in his chair and said, "You better not use that word with leaders. No leader wants to talk about vulnerability! They won't go there."
Really, I thought to myself? No leader wants to think about managing vulnerability? It's not a question of going there. It's a matter of already being there. In a complex, interdependent global reality, low predictability and low control define today's reality. These uncertain times by nature are vulnerable times. How you deal with vulnerability has a lot to do with defining your character and leadership style. If leaders and managers deny their vulnerability, what does that say about their effectiveness and ability to learn from mistakes? How can you expand your understanding of things if you can't admit you're wrong?
Michele Bachmann's embarrassing faux pas about the Founding Fathers (she said that they worked tirelessly to end slavery) is a case in point. Here's a person with a staff who sees herself as a future president, and is either intentionally revising history or doesn't care enough to know the facts. But even worse were the contortions she went through to justify her statement when she was brought to task. Is it so hard to simply say, "I was wrong, I made a mistake"?
Sarah Palin's comment on the Paul Revere ride and making it a case for the Second Amendment is a similar example. What's wrong with saying, "I didn't get it quite right, but I've got it now"? Instead, we get all this rationalization, victimization and fast footwork. And admitting a "misstatement" comes short of owning up. Rather than "man up," how about we "own up" to all the false and misguided statements we've made?
It's not to say that we haven't seen leaders and politicians admit being wrong or making a mistake. The mea culpas keep coming from philandering husbands, from Edwards to Spitzer to Ensign. Admitting wrong for personal issues seems to have more approval than for a professional issue.
To make a wrong right, you have to start out with admitting you are wrong. That's the problem with many of the lawsuits that get settled behind closed doors, such as the sex discrimination suit filed against Morgan Stanley (now Morgan Stanley Smith Barney). Making sealed deals with no admission of wrongdoing is not progress; it's denying a vulnerability and therefore not addressing it in an effective and constructive way.
In order to manage vulnerability effectively, you have to be strong enough to admit that you are wrong and care enough to do something about it. Admitting you are wrong is not just about a weakness but also about an opportunity to learn and grow. It requires a special kind of strength: humility.
We need our leaders to model managing vulnerability in a constructive way. Of course, there is always the fear of being diminished or demeaned, and in a culture that so heavily denies vulnerability, this is certainly a possibility. But our future as a society rests in how we deal with all the vulnerabilities we face individually and collectively and how we respond to others being vulnerable. When we can transform vulnerabilities into learning opportunities for everyone, and cast them in a positive light, then that can lead to new strengths.