Get Real to Succeed – vulnerability, love, and clarity

Growth chartI am accustom to encountering friendly (sometimes intense) competitive posturing when entering a new situation. A little verbal sparing sets the tone for who is stronger in position and perspective. Once the first probe of potential strengths and weakness passes the conversation gets down to business.  It is like a hazing designed to determine the level of competence and connection.
So, imagine my surprise when entering a tense conversation when the CEO started with, “Your perspective (referring to an email) hurt me.  I don’t think it captured my intent or characterized my actions well.”

I sat back in my chair, grasped for a new sense of orientation to the meeting and responded with, “Fair enough, help me understand.  I thought you made clear in our last conversation that you were quite agitated with the course we decided to take. Was I wrong?”

Feelings change the “rules of engagement” in interactions. They can introduce vulnerability instead of competitiveness in communication in a way that accelerates clarity.  I don’t often see this kind of vulnerability in organizations.  Communication is more often a muddle of dishonesty and irritation punctuated with rare moments of personal honesty that infrequently slips out from the edges.  This “usual pattern” is horribly inefficient.

This CEO was in the middle of a deliberate culture change.  He had inherited a corporate culture permeated with a cover your backside attitude, pettiness, excuse making, blame shifting poorly performing company.  He wanted to move it toward a responsible, accountable, vision casting quest for excellence. There are still burps of regression along the way but wow, a little honesty about feelings seems to have gone a long way in getting at clear communication. Three factors help start then negotiate a culture shift.


Brené Brown has made an impact on the way leaders think about vulnerability by defining vulnerability accepting the uncertainty and risk associated with emotional exposure. What is the benefit to this approach? The opportunity for love to grow.  “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”
― Brené BrownThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are  What does love have to do with business or leadership?  It has everything to do with engaging work with who one really is rather than what people think they should be.

I remember my first VP in business after my transition from pastoral ministry to the corporate world.  One day he asked me what I thought about being in the “real world.”  I turned and laughed at him.

“Real? You think this is real? All I see are people afraid to be themselves, filled with competitive envy who are confident of only one thing – the moment they let down their guard someone will view them as less successful.  You want real?  Come to my pastoral office where people pour out their fears, describe their losses, unveil their shame and guilt and ask for help in becoming the person they want to be…that is real.  This is mostly a farce where some people enjoy what they do yet worry that they may be truly known and others hate what they do and will never allow themselves to be truly known.”  The VP looked stunned for a moment then wandered off muttering something about my being really different.

Vulnerability makes the shift from hiding to walking into the open with all the skills, insights, interests and passion that sit at the core of people’s true engagement.  Without the willingness to embrace the chance of failure no real success will ever occur.  I have a quote hanging on my office wall from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States that summarizes this idea.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”


James Autry, retired president of the magazine group at Meredith Corporation, reflected on one of the most transformative encounters he experienced as a leader. He was listening to Bob Barnett, then CEO of the Meredith Corporation in 1968.  According to Autry, Barnett reflected on the importance of self renewal as a leader pointing out that the most important thing in this process is love.

Love in business?  Why not? Love is not being a jolly, well-liked sap who cannot make difficult decisions or who has lost the respect of others and become an impotent in leader. Rather it is a commitment to act out beyond ego to recognize when denial or hubris has misdirected critical thinking. Love is the humility to learn from others regardless of their status and a commitment to grow personally. Love sets a tone in which others can risk excelling – an act that requires they also risk failing.

So did love work for Autry?  Under his tenure the magazine group went from $160 million in revenue to $500 million.  In Autry’s words “I tried to integrate love in the corporate setting. And it just kept working; I just kept getting results.”

My CEO friend is on the verge of becoming deliberate about love. He clearly has compassion for his employees and cares about their well-being.  However, he has not yet defined love in a way that allows him to also exercise difficult leader decisions. As a result he sometimes lacks clarity in the muddle of his own duplicity in action. He affirms when he needs to correct and sometimes corrects when he needs to affirm.  He has retained less than capable people with the hope they will improve and not designed a development plan to move them toward improvement or replacement.


In my conversation with this newly minted CEO I asked him to tell me what his vision was for the company.  He outlined a profit target.

“Ok,” I said, “hitting a profit is great and necessary to continue in business but what inspires you to work to that end? What will you use to rally the people in your charge to truly invest themselves in the work of the company?”

“Hitting the profit goal,” he responded with even greater intensity. He appears to see profit as the means to an end. It is of course in one sense, he will not keep his position or meet his other goals without making a profit.  However, he has fallen into the great distortion of the American corporation.  The real work of any business is not making profits; making profits is the result of the real work.

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink noted that purpose was one of the core aspects of motivation.  When people own and work toward a greater purpose their internal drive reduces any need to force a motivation onto them. Most managers learn that extrinsic motivators are not consistently reliable and often work to undermine rather than amplify motivation.

The greatest businesses I have had opportunity to engage all have and live in a sense of purpose and they can describe their purpose clearly and succinctly. Sure they are aware of their metrics and check their profit.  However, their profitability (and all of them are profitable) does not arise out of their monitoring of profit but out of their passion for their work.

When I pressed this new CEO for a purpose his communication became a muddled disarray of incomplete thoughts.  It seems to me that once the CEO becomes clear about love he will also become much more clear about purpose. Clarity in purpose is essential for any company that seeks to thrive and walk toward greatness.  Those companies that only walk toward profit are not great, they are wreaks of burned out employees and bitter executives living to avoid the next round of cuts.


I see vulnerability, love and clarity as revolutionary in force and outcome. In my own leadership I have seen the power these unleash the gifts and abilities of others and myself. These characteristics always probe my weaknesses and push on my strengths. These characteristics consistently help turn negative poor performing units and companies into thriving and financially successful operations in my experience. However, they clearly need a commitment to personal change and growth. How does vulnerability, love and clarity factor into your leadership?  If they don’t, why? How can you introduce them? Do you need help – who will you talk with? I am always game for a conversation – I am still learning.  Let’s talk.

breaking down barriers

Terry has joined an important dialogue. I recommend her article and your comments. Women in leadership will find encouragement. Men in leadership will (or should) find insight.