Vulnerability is the most important – and often most overlooked – quality forming the platform for organizational health. Patrick Lencioni, author, and founder and president of The Table Group, insists that recognizing and acting on health rather than only smartness is crucial to creating and sustaining competitive advantage.
If you want your organization to be successful, whether you are a big multinational, a small startup, a deli, school or even a church, you need a team that is both smart and healthy. Too often, Lencioni says, leaders pay too much attention to the former and not enough of the latter.
“Strategy, marketing, finance, and technology are important, but these aspects of smartness are only 50% of the equation,” he explains. “The trouble is that most leaders give 95% of their attention to the things that are learned in business school.” They should be paying equal attention to the elements that contribute to the health of a team, such as minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and lower turnover.
“Most leaders find it easier to find solutions on the smart side of the chart. I am convinced that the area for the most competitive advantage is on the healthy side. Everybody is smart enough these days anyway. I have yet to go into a company and come out thinking, ‘They are too dumb’.”
So the best way to differentiate a company in this era, he continues, is to figure out how to make it healthy. Cohesive leadership, creating clarity, communicating that clarity, and then over communicating it and reinforcing it is helpful in planning the route, but trust based on vulnerability, rather than predictive trust, is the quality that Lencioni keeps returning to.
“I don’t like over-hierarchical companies but I do love hierarchy,” he says. “I don’t approve of the consensual approach that says companies don’t need leaders.” But the most effective leaders are the ones that are prepared to demonstrate vulnerability, which in turn earns trust from their employees.
“I’m talking about when people can and will genuinely say ‘I need help, I screwed up, I’m sorry…’ When people can be emotionally butt naked. When there is somebody on a team who cannot say sorry or be vulnerable, it poisons the rest of the team. How do you get there? The leader of the team has to go first and be vulnerable. A CEO loses credibility if he or she can’t display vulnerability because the rest of his team won’t either if he or she doesn’t. At the heart of any real problem, there is nearly always a behavioral issue.”
He contradicts the idea that “when you are a leader you are not supposed to let people see you sweat”, suggesting that the best leaders are the ones that show you the wet patch under their armpits, metaphorically speaking. “We trust them more. You gain credibility when you admit you have problems. Competence problems arise too, of course, but your people want you to be honest, not perfect. Celebrate and admit your problems.”
Following on from this is allowing a framework for conflict in an organization. “A bad marriage is one where you can’t argue, not one where you do. Great relationships are built on the ability to disagree and to make better decisions on the basis of that. If difficult disagreements are not included in your team, you are probably not making the right decisions. Most companies have nothing like enough conflict. Good teams disagree and they come to respect each other as result.”