Do You Want to Be a Great Leader? Ditch the Cape

What does it mean to be vulnerable as a leader?

At 32 years old, my company promoted me to plant manager even though I had never run a manufacturing operation in my life.

Upon arriving at this business, I realized there was a lot to do. There were quality problems that needed to be fixed, cost challenges that needed to be addressed, and morale issues to be confronted.

I was concerned I might be in over my head. I was the youngest manager in the history of this plant, and I didn’t want to fail.

At this point in my career, I had subscribed to the notion that the leader had to have the stereotypical leadership traits – self-confidence, assertiveness, action-orientation, and the ability to inspire others, take risks, solve problems, and take charge.

I had the mistaken belief that the boss had to have all the answers.

I had the mistaken belief that the boss had to have all the answers. Click To Tweet

What made it more intimidating was that the managers and workforce at this facility were all older and more experienced than I was. They knew far more than I did about how to run the plant.

My challenge was to figure out how to lead this operation effectively while not knowing as much as my team.

Many leaders find themselves in the same position. They are surrounded by people who are older and more experienced after a promotion or a job change. It’s easy to become intimidated.

Many leaders make the mistake of trying to appear knowledgeable, to fake it, but it doesn’t work with experienced employees. They can see right through fake leaders.

Instead, I became an effective leader at this plant by taking a step back from the leadership stereotypes. I led by learning, observing, listening, and engaging with my team. I took a more humble approach. I asked questions and listened to ideas. I treated the experienced employees with respect and sought them out for advice.

What I soon discovered is there was power in vulnerability and authenticity.

There is power in vulnerability and authenticity. Click To Tweet

Contrary to popular belief, being vulnerable does not mean being weak. It means letting your guard down, being genuine, and avoiding the pretense that you know everything.

Brené Brown, the best-selling author of Dare to Lead, says that vulnerability is simply “engaging in life, being all in, dedicating yourself to something.”

A vulnerable leader does not feel the need to have all the answers. Instead, being vulnerable enables you to see the organization through the eyes of the people you lead. You seek out their ideas and input, and, as a result, employees are more involved and invested.

A vulnerable leader does not feel the need to have all the answers. Click To Tweet

When you stop pretending to be a superhero, you become more interesting, relatable, and effective as a leader.

You might not know this, but even Superman had to learn the power of vulnerability.

One of the early complaints about the “Man of Steel” as a superhero character was that he was too perfect. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound meant that he was pretty much unbeatable.

It was always an overwhelming mismatch between Superman and any of his enemies. There was never any tension and no question who would win. As a result, Superman became boring and predictable. So dull that writers had to introduce the concept of Kryptonite to give Superman’s villains a fighting chance.

Introducing Kryptonite allowed Superman to become vulnerable. As a result, his stories became more exciting and relatable to the audience. The outcome was no longer a foregone conclusion.

When we decide to be more vulnerable as leaders, we become more attractive as well. Our employees see us as someone who is open, relatable, and willing to listen to feedback. We become real and approachable.

I discussed the idea of vulnerability and authenticity with business coach Andrew Ryder on this week’s episode of the Deep Leadership podcast. Andrew has excellent insight on this topic. You can check it out here.

If you are interested in learning more about how I turned this plant around, check out my new book, All in the Same Boat: Lead Your Organization Like a Nuclear Submariner.

 

Who’s Your Chief?

When I was just 23 years old, fresh out of submarine school, I was given my first leadership job.

I was assigned to lead the team of sailors who maintained and operated the complex systems that controlled the nuclear reactor on the USS Tennessee. It was a small group led by a senior enlisted sailor, a Chief Petty Officer, who had come up through the ranks.

The Chief Petty Officer was not only skilled, but he was also highly experienced. He had been in the Navy for almost as many years as I had been alive. He was older than me and had infinitely more knowledge in the maintenance and operation of nuclear reactor controls. And the team looked to him for guidance.

Yet, I was in charge.

Many new leaders find themselves in this exact situation. They are asked to lead teams of older, more experienced employees.

Many new leaders find themselves in this exact situation. They are asked to lead teams of older, more experienced employees. Click To Tweet

So, how can you be an effective leader if you’re young and inexperienced? It’s simple.

Find your Chief and learn from them.

You’re probably thinking – How do I find my Chief? In the Navy it was easy but how do I find my Chief in a business environment? Look for the person in the organization who is the opinion leader. Usually, they are a senior employee and a technical expert.

Find out who the team naturally goes to for all the answers.

Find out who the team naturally goes to for all the answers. Click To Tweet

That person is your Chief.

That’s the person you want to build a relationship with and learn from. In most cases, they don’t want your job, they are happy being the senior, technical expert. If you show them respect and learn from them, you will become a more effective leader for the team.

Deep Leadership PodcastListen to my conversation with retired Chief Petty Officer, Chuck Whitworth on the latest episode of the Deep Leadership podcast to understand the important relationship between the Leader and the Chief.

And, if you need more ideas on how to be an effective leader, get a copy of my latest book – I Have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following. It’s filled with 23 practical ideas on how you can become a more effective leader.

 

Photo: USS Key West Chief of the Boat Master Chief Nicholas Harr (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kelsey J. Hockenberger)

Have you had a “Follow Me” Moment?

You’ve probably heard the expression, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

It could also be put another way, “Don’t just stand there, do something!”

If you’re anything like me, you can’t stand inaction. I have a low tolerance for people who talk more than they act. Maybe that’s why I always say, don’t tell me what you’re going to do, just do it!

I became a leader because I wanted to get things done.

My answer to the question of “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” has always been to lead. And, if you subscribe to this email and listen to my podcast, you probably feel the same way.

I talked about this issue with Air Force veteran Mitchell Boling on the latest episode of the Deep Leadership podcast. We talked about the time he first realized he was a leader. He called it his “follow me” moment.

He relates the “follow me” moment to something like an Army Sergeant who jumps up and beckons his troops to follow him to take a hill.

In Mitch’s case, as a new team leader, he agreed to take a weekend assignment to give his team some time off but he needed someone to help him. When he asked for volunteers, every hand shot up. He said, “it gave me goosebumps.” It was at this point, he realized he was the leader and people were willing to stand up and follow him.

How about you?

Have you had a “follow me” moment yet where you realized you were the leader – where everyone looked to you for direction?

Did it humble you to know that a group of people were now depending on you to lead them effectively? Did it send chills down your spine knowing you were now responsible for the success of your team?

If you haven’t had this experience yet, you need to ask yourself – Are you really a leader or do you just have a fancy title?

As John Maxwell says, “If you think you’re leading, but no one is following, then you are only taking a walk.”

“If you think you're leading, but no one is following, then you are only taking a walk.” John Maxwell Click To Tweet

If you’ve been assigned to lead people, do it. Be the leader they need, don’t just go for a walk.

 

If you need some ideas on how to be an effective leader, get a copy of my latest book – I Have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following. It’s filled with 23 practical ideas on how you can become a more effective leader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Gilbert]