Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.

Early in my CEO career, I would have described a great leader as someone with vision, a growth mindset, authenticity, confidence, charisma, courage… 

Then a board member called me aside: “Burnison, you need to be more vulnerable. You’ll be amazed by the results.”

I could see a place for humility. But vulnerability? That didn’t make it into my top 10.

That board member’s wise words are even more impactful today. Vulnerability is actually a strength for leaders, who must admit that tomorrow’s answers won’t be found in the corner office. Vulnerable leaders incite organizational curiosity, creating a culture of “collective genius.” Rather than people being told what to do, they should be inspired about what to think about.

Just a few months ago, words like self-disruption and transformation were the buzzwords du jour. Now the world really has been disrupted—and the collateral damage is all around us.

In a matter of days, organizations have had to make rapid decisions simply to survive.

Everywhere, the circuit breakers have been tripped. Now, it’s the big reset. To thrive, all companies will need to think and act like startups by reimagining their future. If they don’t, their competition will.

Why? Because in the next two years we will see more change than we’ve seen in the last 20. And that change must “bubble up” from within an organization, not merely cascade down.

While it’s natural to reminisce about the past, even if it’s just five months ago, we can’t stay there. 

This new normal has almost no parallel (a new Industrial Revolution, perhaps?) and it’s not a time for individual heroism. No one has the all answers (and if they tell you they do, run the other way). Vulnerability rules. Here are some thoughts:

  • We’re all a work in progress: Despite my best intentions, a couple of weeks ago during a conversation with a colleague I just lost it. I had asked this person to do something and, when it wasn’t done, I immediately jumped to conclusions. I slipped into command-and-control mode and let my anger get the best of me. After reflecting on how poorly that conversation had gone, I called the person first thing the next morning to apologize: “I’m sorry. I didn’t listen to what you were saying.” In that moment, I could just sense the person’s body language shifting—like letting out a breath. No matter how much we try to get things right, we’ll usually get things wrong. It takes humility and vulnerability to admit those failings, first to ourselves and then to others.
  • Cultivate humility: Some places, there used to be “fresh air” at and near the top of the corporate ladder—a microclimate that could breed arrogance. In the past few months, though, a high-pressure system has blown through, putting an end to that microclimate. Anyone who thinks there’s still fresh, rare air at the top faces a real problem. If egos have not been checked with a large dose of humility in the past few weeks, then the big question is why. What’s it going to take to become vulnerable? Leaders do need to be confident, but too much self-confidence can narrow their peripheral vision. Humility is the secret to staying aware, alert, and nimble. It speaks in powerful phrases—I’ve never thought of that. Tell me more. Who knows more about this?—that encourage collective genius. As one executive shared with me the other day, “Going forward, post COVID-19, will require leaders…to humble themselves to bring along their organizations…to shepherd their people/organization out of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity to come. Forget about executives applying ‘Best Practices’—this will become passé. Organizations will need executives capable of enabling ‘Best Thinking’ to drive the metamorphosis to superior performance that serves all stakeholders.”
  • Urgent patience is a virtue: Impatience doesn’t get the job done. It inspires more fear than high performance, which can override critical thinking. Anybody who has gone into a skid on black ice can relate: your instinct is to slam on the brakes and jerk the wheel in the opposite direction. It takes a clear head to do the opposite—the counterintuitive—of steering into the skid to regain control. It’s time for leaders to “ease up on the stick,” too. Urgent patience is the real virtue here. Or, in the words of Emperor Augustus, “Festina lente”—make haste slowly. It’s the grace under pressure that turns crisis into opportunity.
  • The power of “and”: Nothing shuts things down faster than the word “but.” One person floats an idea or asks a question, and someone else jumps in with “but.” What comes next is always negative. Invariably, it leads to disagreement. Replacing “but” with “and” improves team effectiveness—such as “that’s an interesting idea, and you might also consider….” It takes vulnerability to be open to other people’s ideas, especially when there is disagreement. And yet, constructive conflict often leads to collective genius. That’s how the best ideas emerge in a new normal of collaboration—more communal, less formal.
  • Vulnerable and unashamed: One of the most powerful examples of a vulnerable leader I’ve ever met, ironically, was a battle-tested, three-star general: Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck. He told me an emotional story several years ago about attending the funeral for a West Point graduate who was killed in the line of duty. With his eyes visibly moistening, Hagenbeck confided what it was like to be there to console the family, while also honoring the choice this promising second lieutenant had made to serve. The experience had a profound impact on me. Over his long and distinguished military career, Hagenbeck had witnessed the loss of many lives. Even though he dealt with such losses, over and over again, he grieved each like it was the first and only one. From the words he spoke to the tears in his eyes, he demonstrated his compassion and humanity.

The fact is people don’t change unless there’s a reason. This is a once-in-a-hundred-year opportunity to not only believe in change, but also to drive change. The whiteboard has been wiped clean. There’s no looking back. Forget about talking about the future—the future is now. This is the time to remove the veil of hubris and reveal the reality of vulnerability. 

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