Here’s the problem with 'vulnerable leadership'

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Be more like Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s not advice that many CEOs are used to hearing, but it’s an interesting suggestion Stephanie Mehta made in a recent edition of her Modern CEO column. The argument is that radical candor can foster a sense of trust among employees, investors, and stakeholders. Referring to a report called “The Imperfect CEO” from Russell and Reynolds, Mehta writes that “CEOs who acknowledge their imperfections can often be more effective.”

This isn’t vulnerability, though – it’s self awareness. When people ask me what type of CEOs I typically work with, I like to say that it’s those who know what they don’t know – often founders who have achieved extraordinary success but realize that their current skill set won’t be enough to propel them forward.  

But there’s a big difference between quietly working to address your shortcomings and laying them bare for the world to see. Mehta continues:

“Perhaps Paltrow figured out what O’Brien and Stamoulis articulate in their report on imperfect leaders: When CEOs can admit their flaws and mistakes, they create a sense of trust and authenticity with employees, investors, and other stakeholders.”

This is where I disagree. CEOs are responsible for the financial security of their team. Even when they are younger than their average employee, they are parental figures. And just like parents try not to let their children worry about money even when times are tight, CEOs have a responsibility to project confidence and quietly fix problems that others in the company might never even know existed in the first place.

Even as the U.S. economy seems to be skirting a recession, this has been a highly stressful year for the workforce – especially those in tech. A Crunchbase tracker reports that more than 150,000 tech workers in the U.S have been laid off so far this year.  Millions more are showing up to work each day worried that they could be the victim of the next round of cuts. Employees don’t have a lot of sympathy right now for CEOs who admit their flaws and mistakes; rather than creating trust, the confessional approach can come across as self-serving and out of touch.

This is not to say that CEOs should speak only happy talk. Employees are highly attuned to leaders who are overly scripted and rehearsed. They know when their CEO is reading them the same press release the company put out a couple of hours earlier. Admittedly, this requires threading a needle: speak from the heart and you can find yourself in trouble; speak from the script and you don’t seem real.

This requires CEOs to work behind the scenes to troubleshoot as many problems before they ever see the light of day. Then, after a crisis is averted or managed, there can be an opportunity to share their learnings with employees. This offers a glimpse into the decision making process with the security of a post game analysis. An authentic CEO exudes confidence in their ability to rectify errors, navigate challenges swiftly, and turn mistakes into opportunities to learn, grow, and delegate. 

Being a CEO is one of the loneliest jobs in the world, and the confessional approach of “vulnerable leadership” can feel like a form of therapy. That’s why leaders need safe spaces for privately sharing fears and stress, and a kitchen cabinet of mentors who have been in the trenches before. 

Every CEO is a vulnerable human being behind closed doors. In the public eye, they don’t always have that luxury.

— David Meadvin, CEO and Cofounder, One Strategy Group