Leadership Building Block #1: Advocacy
Welcome to the first installment of “Somehow I Manage: Building Blocks of Leadership”. If you’re new to the series, check out this prelude article that’ll give you more info on what we’re diving into.
Before we jump into the attribute of vulnerability, let’s talk a little about the overarching building block: advocacy. Instead of reading the direct definition, we’ll parse the definition within the context of leadership as we start to explore the attributes of the building blocks of leadership.
Advocacy: A principle that promotes supporting your teammates by leading beside them instead of in front of them.
Tactical leadership approaches that foster “we” or level-fielded mentalities yield much better results with your teammates. When someone assumes the title of “manager”, they’re automatically looked at through a different lens – sometimes placed on an unintended pedestal that separates managers from employees. Practicing advocacy, however, will help keep managers and teammates figuratively level with one another, creating some great relationships.
Now that we’ve talked about the main building block, let’s dive into the attribute of vulnerability with a little help from NBC.
The Office: One of Michael Scott’s defining leadership moments
Everyone who watches The Office knows Michael Scott. He’s the Regional Manager of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch who does a lot of things as a manager wrong – things HR in the real world would be knocking down our door if they heard about. What we get to witness as the audience, however, is the core of what Michael does best: leading people.
In a specific episode, Michael gives Dwight an ultimatum: tell the truth as to why Dwight went to New York (and risk throwing his teammate Angela under the bus for not turning in her reports on time), or be fired from Dunder Mifflin Scranton. Dwight, wanting to protect his teammate, opts to resign and work for the competitor Staples as a result.
As the episode unfolds, Michael learns that Dwight resigned to protect his teammate Angela, and immediately attempts to get Dwight back. When Michael finds Dwight inside Staples, that conversation goes as follows:
Michael: What’s up?
Dwight: Same old.
Michael: Um. It takes a big man to admit his mistake. And I am that big man. Angela from accounting told me what you did.
Dwight: Oh my God, she told you?
Michael: Yes, she did. And Dwight, if you were willing to do something like that for some random co-worker, then clearly I have misjudged you from the beginning, and I apologize.
This is one of the many examples of what makes Michael such a good people leader. Specifically, he practiced vulnerability in this situation. Michael does a good job of reinforcing the underlying effect of being vulnerable: demonstrating that you’re human, too.
The core of vulnerability
Mistakes happen – it’s part of being human. For some reason, however, there’s this stigma as people leaders that we aren’t allowed to make mistakes; that we aren’t allowed to be wrong; and that we definitely shouldn’t admit to being wrong particularly to our subordinates (I hate that word so much).
“If our teams see us making mistakes, then how can they trust us to lead them?”
That’s the dumbest premise I’ve ever heard of.
Telling your teammates about your mistakes actually strengthens your bond between you and your team(s). Can you imagine the pressure teams have who feel like they have to be perfect with their work because their manager is always perfect? That’s exhausting!
When you express your areas of personal improvement to your team, whether it be attitude or a project you didn’t do so well on, it starts to let your team see you for what you are: human. The feelings of “manager vs employee”, the figurative pedestal that separates people leaders from people they lead starts to disappear, and the leadership approach then becomes a “we” focus as you indirectly encourage your teammates to be what they are: human.
Vulnerability in action: a personal anecdote
I was just hired in a new role and into an already-existing team. Before relocating to the HQ city, and knowing how important it is to treat coming into an existing team delicately, I reached out to my team in an effort to get to know them a bit.
I sent them a few questions I wanted them to think about (questions that help me learn about them and their career interests), and mentioned that I’ll take them each out to lunch individually to talk through their thoughts. While the other teammates understood and had no issues, one teammate wasn’t too thrilled and responded with this (paraphrased):
Teammate A: “Hey Antonio. I appreciate the effort, but maybe you should get here and learn more about the business first before you start asking these types of questions.”
Admittedly taken aback, I opted not to respond to their email and wait until I got there in person to address everything. When I relocated (about 2 weeks after the exchange), I met with that teammate and this is how I started the conversation:
Me: “Hey, so before we even jump into this, I want to apologize. I didn’t do a clear job of explaining my goals with this. I really just want to learn more about you – what makes you tick, what projects you’ve liked, how I can be a good manager for you – and I realize there was an opportunity to make that more clear than I did, so I’m sorry for the confusion I caused.”
After that, my teammate’s metaphorical walls came crashing down. They apologized themselves, actually, for the way they came across in their initial response via email. I was able to learn more about them, but more importantly, this exchange of vulnerability set the tone for our professional relationship throughout the rest of our tenures. By falling on my sword, I let my vulnerability repair any perceived damage, reinforce that I’m human, and put myself at the same level as my teammate. The result was like a “reset” button was hit between my teammate and me.
Vulnerability: when used correctly, it can be powerful
While practicing vulnerability with your team is helpful, it’s also important not to overuse it. Using the tactic too much, too often, and too casually can result in exactly what we want to avoid: the team losing confidence in their leader.
Being vulnerable as a people leader can be scary. You don’t want to lose your team’s respect, or feel inadequate, or be seen as weak. It’s important to recognize, however, that it’s only a terrifying process if we make it so. Practicing vulnerability with your teammates elicits great responses, sometimes indirectly, that your team truly appreciates. Not just because you’re taking the risk and sharing your failures, but because you’re reminding them that you’re just like them: human.
For the next installment, we’ll continue with the advocacy building block, but shift our attention to a popular one: empathy. Until next time!
When has vulnerability worked, or failed, for you?