Editor's note: An earlier version of this commentary by Brad Owens was published by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University and is published here with permission.
One night while knocking on my 6-year-old daughter’s bedroom door to say goodnight, through the partially open door, I could see her looking under her bed. When she heard my knock she stood up very quickly with a look of panic and then leaned casually against her bed trying to appear relaxed. Curious about her behavior, I asked, “Sweetheart, what do you have under your bed?” She responded, “Nothing Daddy.” “Can I look,” I asked. “No thanks,” she responded. When I looked under her bed, I discovered a 10-pound bag of granulated sugar that she must have taken from the pantry sometime earlier that day! This was just one of several recent examples of my daughters’ excessive and often secretive fetish with eating sugary things. I sat down next to her and began to explain why stealing was wrong and that eating too many sweets would make her unhealthy, but these words did not seem to register. She just kept looking at the ground.
I needed a different approach. I then said, “Do you want to know something? The truth is that when I was your age, I had a big problem with eating too many sweets. It took me years to get it under control. I know it can be hard.” I will never forget the look on her face. She took her eyes off the ground, and her look of guilt was replaced with a look of hopefulness and surprise. “Really?” she said. “Really,” I responded. “So what do you need me to do to help you?” We had a trusting, open talk about the issue. She has been much more transparent about the topic since then, and she has tempered her appetite for sugar considerably. I believe this in large part was because I was willing to be vulnerable.
Over the past 12 years, my colleagues and I have been exploring what happens when leaders show vulnerability by admitting mistakes or limitations, acknowledging what they don’t know and seeking to learn from others; or what we call expressed humility. Interview statements from 55 leaders from business, nonprofit, military, educational and governmental contexts suggested that when people in positions of power show vulnerability in these ways, followers more often than not saw it as a sign of internal strength, that the leader had the courage to show their humanness to followers.
Such displays not only were described as psychologically liberating the leader from the burden of trying to maintain an inflated persona, but, reflecting the experience above, it also opened others up to learning and development. More specifically, our interview statements suggested that followers of such leaders felt relief from evaluation apprehension, felt more engaged in work tasks and felt the psychological safety to “be myself” at work. Units led by such leaders were reported to be more adaptive, more experimental and more open to fluctuation between top-down (more authoritative) to bottom-up (more democratic) forms of organizing when the situation called for it.Comment on this story
Follow-up empirical studies using samples from the U.S., China, Taiwan, Singapore and Portugal showed support for these qualitative results, revealing that when leaders display humility and the vulnerability that it entails, their employees are more likely to have higher job satisfaction, job engagement and penchant for learning. They also perform better and are less likely to be emotionally depleted and to voluntarily leave the organization.
William Penn once wrote, “Sense shines with a double luster when it is set in humility. An able yet humble man is a jewel worth a kingdom.” Though sense and ability are valuable traits of good leaders, having the quiet courage and strength to be vulnerable by showing humility magnifies the value of this leader because they catalyze and legitimize the development of others.