Strength, courage, fortitude - there are so many descriptors that one thinks of when we imagine those we would like to follow. In our proverbial march through the darkness which can sometimes be our working world, we want captains to which we can grant our trust. Their shoulders should be broad enough to carry our worry and their voice should be clear, giving us the confidence to feel safe in troubled times. But there’s another important aspect that we should expect of our leaders. We’ve grown more aware in recent decades that leaders should possess a certain degree of humanity and empathy in the way they govern. The focus on emotional intelligence within the world of business leadership isn’t just a ‘feel good’, these attributes have increasingly become de rigueur as we’ve learned that leaders must think and feel and truly care for those in their organization.

But, why should we care about our bosses showing their soft underbelly to the rest of us? And, how does being a vulnerable, authentic, transparent leader contribute to your firm going farther, doing more and achieving the goals you’ve set?

Knowing How Our Leaders Feel Enables Us To Push Harder

I’ve previously discussed the importance of honesty being an enabler for those who report to us. A senior-level leader or manager of line-level employees has an enormous impact on the performance of their teams simply through being open about the challenges we face. This kind of unfiltered truth empowers the right kind of team. But there’s more to being vulnerable than just stating the facts about how we are trending or how many points we need to make up in our comp growth. Your direct or indirect reports want to know how you feel. Why? Because they want to know how to feel. They are watching you for cues. It’s one of the reasons we all look at the flight attendant when the plane we are on hits choppy air. ‘Okay, she’s smiling and chill… I can go back to watching Kung Fu Panda.’ But, what do I do if I look up and my flight attendant has fear in his eyes? Not a good feeling….

At town halls and roundtables I’ve hosted over the years or at those being facilitated by leaders more senior to me, there is one question which is the number one most asked: ‘What keeps you up at night'?’ Why do so many professionals what to know this answer from their superiors? Because those employees are trying to decide what they should be losing sleep over. What matters? It’s us looking at our flight attendant and deciding when we should adopt crash position.

The flow of us sharing our vulnerable transparency looks something like this:

  • Being transparent about how we feel as leaders helps our teams calibrate and explore their own feelings.

  • Understanding their feelings helps them decide how to respond to them.

  • Responding to and categorizing these feelings is a critical part of our teams getting on with the business of doing their jobs.

  • Our teams doing their jobs well allows us to achieve our goals.

The entire process starts with us, as leaders, helping our teams explore those emotions and our vulnerable transparency is the spark that lights that fire.

Vulnerability + Mission Objectives x Alignment = Achievement

Over an 11 year period I had the good fortune of working with Starbucks Coffee Company and experienced what many of us during those years believed to be a sort of Camelot period of our working lives. Incredibly healthy company culture? Check. Reward and compensation models light years ahead of many competitors? Check. Quality and brand standards that were the envy of many other companies? Check. Those of us working in that organization experienced personal and professional growth and felt proud to play a role in a blisteringly fast-paced growth story. But, the train ride wasn’t without bumps. All organizations have problems and difficult quarters. The way in which they choose to handle them is what makes some firms truly world class.

During a particularly critical period for Starbucks, our quarterly results were even more scrutinized than was typical. The company was opening a lot of stores - five per business day at that time - and hiring, training, building… it was fever pitched. By this time Starbucks had built a model that worked and had strong processes, though some weren’t perfect. On an average ticket which is derived from coffee beverages, you can imagine that profitability and margin efficiency are benchmarks that must be protected. Flow through is critical and pennies on the dollar make a huge difference across thousands of units.

During this particular period of time, Starbucks was experiencing some strain achieving flow through targets and this wasn’t a good look for the street. Some difficult calls had to be made - not of the layoff or shortchanging quality variety - but some spending and cost control measures were needed. Who would lead this effort? Orin Smith, our COO, that’s who. Orin was an extremely skilled operations leader and he had worked with the finance teams to do the math and knew what action needed to be taken at store level. The controls and margin improvements would be mandated for every store in the enterprise. Communicating and executing such a strategy isn’t easy. There were considerations for cascading the plan, assurances for the mindshare required of all leaders in the organization as well as processes for ongoing measurement of how well we had implemented the directives.

How did it start? With Orin’s voice.

On a series of calls and voice mails delivered to the leaders all across the organization, Orin spoke personally about why these actions were necessary, how we would go about them, and most importantly, how he felt about the plan. Partners (Starbucks speak for ‘employee’) from every store heard their COO express his understanding for how hard this would be and of his conviction that this was the right thing for us to do as well as the need for us to be aligned. As efforts continued for weeks, Orin gave regular updates and continued to express his thanks and his understanding that these tactics were not a walk in the park to execute. I can remember his voice and his message to this day - vulnerable, transparent, clear, imperative. Orin wasn’t punitive. He knew the partners across the organization didn’t create this gap, but he needed every one of them to help close it. And they did. The company achieved that quarter. And the next. And many more after those. One could argue it was Orin choosing not to just send an email memo that made the difference. He expressed his own concerns and fears, espoused his faith in our ability to alter our course and together, we achieved our goals. It’s a model I emulate to this day.

A Leader Who Is Vulnerable Is Rewarded With Many Allies

Those of us who have led and spent any time understanding our own styles and tendencies probably know how we respond to pressure. When in the trenches, we each have coping mechanisms, ways of processing information and filters for stress. In hierarchal organizations it is sometimes necessary that not every challenge be shared outward. But, in cases when it’s permissible to share some of the inner workings of an obstacle or deficiency, some unintended benefits can be derived.

Think about the skills on a team you’ve assembled. What are their collective talents and what specialties exist within their midst? Chances are you have some potent superpowers within your team. Additionally, some latent powers and abilities could exist which haven’t been fully explored or leveraged. When you, as a leader, share your concerns, the details of a problem or call out a challenge your group faces, you create an opportunity for the skilled people around you to join in the fight. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking ‘this is my company/business unit/market area... I have to solve this! I’m responsible!’. That is unnecessary martyrdom. While we know we bear the burden for the area we lead, we must remember we hired our teams for a reason. How incredible would it feel to share your fears and burdens with your team and lighten the load on your own shoulders? Then, why aren’t you? Often, when we lay out a problem and our feelings related to it, our teams engage their super powers and solutions we never dreamed of begin to manifest. You were right when you told yourself that you’re responsible, but being responsible for your organization doesn’t mean bearing sole burden for your challenges. If you’ve assembled the right team you should be able to bring them inside your problem and they will circle around you, fortifying your position and marching with collective might toward victory.

Are you leading a team, either as an experienced professional or a new line manager and you’ve recognized an opportunity for that team to be more open and vulnerable? Are there results-oriented aspects of your operation that would benefit from your leaders being more skilled at exhibiting emotional intelligence and authenticity to their reports? Get in touch with me and perhaps I can help. I have led individuals and teams on journeys of self discovery and helped them be more well-rounded in their pursuit of guiding their teams toward consistent results.


— Kimball Carr is a writer, owner and multi-unit leader with more than two decades of business experience across a wide array of sectors. He has produced work for print, film and the software world and has contributed his leadership to 3 of Fortunes best 100 companies to work for. As a consultant, he works with businesses and individuals and is currently the co-founder of Grom Coast Surf & Skate, an apparel brand and retail store built specifically for kids. — 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash