Over the course of the presidential campaign, we all saw the stark contrast between the leadership styles of macho President Trump and touchy-feely President-elect Biden. World-renowned therapist and TED Talk star Brené Brown was watching too, and she says the different behavior of the two men confirmed a central truth of her research into shame and leadership.
Biden, she explained on her podcast Dare to Lead recently (hat tip to Business Insider), provided a masterclass is an essential quality of effective leadership that Trump conspicuously lacks: vulnerability.
The former vice president’s willingness to admit mistakes, share his suffering, and change his mind helps him bring out the best in his people. According to research by Brown and others, if you want to be an effective leader too, you should follow Biden’s lead and let people see your human flaws and foibles.
Why vulnerability is a leadership superpower
Biden’s life has been famously tragic. From losing his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash in 1972 to the untimely death of his son Beau from brain cancer and the struggles of his son Hunter with addiction, the man has clearly experienced more than his fair share of suffering. That makes him sympathetic, but why does publicly sharing this pain make him a role model for great leadership?
Brown explains that Biden’s willingness to share hard emotions with others, as well as his ability to publicly accept criticism with grace (including withering debate attacks from his now governing partner Kamala Harris), helps others trust him more.
“I see my stories of messy humanity in his eyes,” Brown explains. “I trust more — not completely, but more — his ability to create policies that reflect the realities of my life.” That’s true, she adds, even though she doesn’t always agree with Biden on policy.
Brown and other experts insist being vulnerable is important not just for gaining trust but also for helping others do their best work. Management consultant Peter Sheehan explains the business case for more vulnerability from leaders:
The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. … If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams.
In short, if a leader can publicly admit they’ve screwed up and suffered, that helps their people have the courage to struggle, make mistakes, and keep going on a new better course. And there’s no way to do difficult, innovative work without setbacks and embarrassments.
So when you hear Joe Biden talk about his grief, his stutter, or his mistakes, don’t assume he’s just being a sentimental old softie (or a manipulative politician pulling at your heartstrings to get your vote). He may be those things, but he’s also showing how a strong leader helps his people reach and grow by being open about his own shortcomings.
Having the courage to be vulnerable gives your team the courage to be vulnerable too, and it’s only when people have permission to fail that they can perform at their best.
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