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The Vulnerability Loop

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The Vulnerability Loop
The counterintuitive basis of great leadership.

This is perhaps the most counterintuitive idea I’ve ever expressed in one of my columns. For many, it will not make sense. It is not a comfortable nor popular idea. I would even say in our industry, it is often seen as a weakness and something to be avoided at great cost. The idea is this: To be an authentic leader and to cultivate a healthy culture, we must express vulnerability. Now, it is possible to be a fake-it-til-you-make-it leader and act like you are never in doubt, don’t really make mistakes and never talk about shortcomings. Likewise, you can build a culture that appears to be always strong, always on point, seemingly invincible. However, we all know that is never the case! The truth is, we are vulnerable. We just don’t like to admit it. But when we acknowledge it, we actually strengthen the bonds within our teams that allow us to collectively do our best work.

First, we need to consider the question: Why is vulnerability so hard for so many of us? We have been taught in thousands of ways that leaders are supposed to be strong and never show any weakness. Have a stiff upper lip! Never let them see you sweat!

Vulnerability is often seen as one of those “touchy feely” attributes that may work in a hippie commune or a therapist’s couch but has no real bearing on getting things accomplished in the real world.

So, what if I told you that the very training regimen of the world’s toughest, manliest men is built on the idea of shared vulnerability? The Navy SEALS intentionally train toward vulnerability. You have likely seen one of these trainings they go through with those oversized telephone pole–looking logs on the beach. Six men are assigned to a 250-pound log and for 90 minutes, they have to balance it on their shoulders, lift it while in sit-up position and several other physically demanding, nearly torturous maneuvers. The whole intention of that training is to get those teams of six right to the brink of their physical capacity where they can’t take much more, which forces them to depend on each other. This whole training exercise is designed to get SEALs to the intersection of vulnerability and connection. Each one of them has to depend on his or her teammates and only together can they make it through.

The most effective leaders and culture builders live at that intersection of vulnerability, dependence and connection. If you want to build a high-performing team, it starts with simple practices, like admitting when you make a mistake, and sharing from the honest place of not having all the answers.

If you want to experiment with this idea of quickly building trust, there is a way. It’s called the vulnerability loop. Here’s how it works: You, as the leader of the group, express in some way that you need help. It can just be a simple statement you make to someone on your team like, “I’m not sure if this is going to work but I’ve been wondering about…” Then you wait to see if that is picked up on by the other person. Does he or she use that as an opportunity to be the expert or does he or she express some kind of vulnerability of their own? If he or she expresses vulnerability and you pick up on it, then the loop has been completed. With the loop completed, trust and closeness grows. Daniel Coyle in his book The Culture Code calls vulnerability loops the “most basic building block of cooperation and trust.”

What would it be like to be part of a team where vulnerability, highly coordinated cooperation, and deep trust are the norm? It can start today with you, taking the risk to express your own need for help to those around you.

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