Leadership: Vulnerable leaders

Lynne Miller flashes pictures of well-known leaders onto screen and asks her audience how vulnerable they think these people are. It’s maybe not typical question about figures such as Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe, broadcaster Paul Henry, Prime Minister John Key, or former All Black winger – and spokesperson on depression – John Kirwan.
For Miller, it’s quick-fire exercise in checking once again her hypothesis that vulnerability and humility are the most powerful leadership traits of all.
For when she asks her audience which people they’d most like to be led by, without question they pick the ‘vulnerable’ ones. John Kirwan, not surprisingly, comes out as the most vulnerable person and people tell Miller they would “definitely” want to be led by him.
“There’s very clear correlation between leaders who demonstrate high levels of vulnerability and the ones who people want to be led by,” Miller says.
Rob Fyfe also scored highly on both his vulnerability quotient and his reputation as good leader.
“He was in tears over the Perpignan tragedy,” says Miller. “You can’t get much more vulnerable than that. And when he’s had to make cuts he’s gone to his people and said, ‘I don’t have the answers. I don’t know. But I need you to work with me to find the answers.’ That’s been him demonstrating his vulnerability and look at what he’s been able to achieve.”
In tellingly similar vein, John Key’s ranking fluctuates depending on which incident springs to mind.
“When he was criticised for using an air force helicopter to get to and from Hamilton for the V8 races, he put up his hand, said he’d got it wrong, and offered to pay back the money,” says Miller. “He was demonstrating his vulnerability. On the other hand, when he didn’t back down over the teapot tapes incident he probably lost bit of kudos.
“When he admitted he’d got it wrong, did people want to be led by him? Yes. But when he was being bull-headed and taking the teapot incident to the police, did people want to be led by him? No.”
Miller, who is head of sales force effectiveness at Yellow Pages Group, presented her ideas on the paradox of the vulnerable leader at Liquid Learning Leadership Psychology Conference in Auckland recently.
Trust, she says, is fundamental to developing high-quality human relationships. And being vulnerable both significantly raises trust and has wide-reaching positive impacts.
She reckons there’s still significant gap before leadership capability in New Zealand can be considered world class. In order for this gap to close, she believes we need to start holding leaders to account for their behaviours and rewarding them for building high-trust relationships.
“What makes good leader great?” she asks. “It’s basically trust… From management perspective it’s reasonably easy to get the capability and the results but the thing that really shifts the dial – particularly on the authenticity of person – is the integrity and intent piece: it’s the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’.
“My observation is that individuals and companies spend far too much time incentivising and rewarding what people do but until they give equal weight to how they do it, these people are probably never going to be world class from leadership perspective.”
Miller says it’s simple to both identify and measure the ‘how’. “Behaviour is very easy to spot,” she says. “If you can see it or hear it, it’s behaviour.”
Despite this, she has sense that New Zealand companies are quite long way behind the UK, Europe and the US in setting up systematic measurement systems around leadership behaviour.
“I’ve been researching which companies assess behaviour in New Zealand and the only ones I’ve come across so far are Vodafone, Lion Nathan and Pernod Ricard.”
Miller herself spent over six years working for Pfizer in the UK where an inhouse behavioural dictionary spelt out what desired behaviours should look like.
“They literally had grid which plotted your ‘what’ and your ‘how’ on seven-point scale,” she says. How an individual did their job was as important as what they did. Employees at all levels were measured on both aspects, which fed through to decisions on salaries and bonuses.
Miller says when she first applied for job with Lion Nathan in New Zealand she surprised interviewers by being both aware of, and comfortable with, the idea of behavioural measurement.
“Until we start holding leaders to account for their ‘how’, as well as their ‘what’ and make the weighting equal we are unlikely to see the dial shift on levels of authenticity and trust,” says Miller.
“From process perspective, few mechanisms are used in New Zealand for actually incentivising leaders to demonstrate constructive behaviours. Many of our leaders are still not held to account for how they behave.”
According to Miller, it’s quite easy to track that constructive behaviours and cultures have significant positive impact on total returns.
“Behaviour breeds behaviour. Constructive behaviours by senior leaders encourage others to be constructive. When you have constructive workplace, you tend to have higher levels of engagement. And then you tend to have higher levels of performance and productivity, and the companies tend to be doing better than their competitors.
“Without high levels of trust at an individual leader level, you have nothing. No amount of MBAs or corporate perks can compensate for lack of trust.
“In the business context, high-performing leaders are the ones who have highly constructive and trusting relationships with those around them and are able to achieve great things through maximising these relationships. These are the people who make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.”
According to Miller, back in 2007 Dr Lester Levy and Mark Bentley had nailed to the mast just how poor New Zealand’s collective leadership capacity was.
Dr Lester Levy – adjunct professor of leadership at The University of Auckland Business School and chief executive at Excelerator – and Mark Bentley – then Excelerator’s general manager – published paper, “More ‘right’ than ‘real’: The shape of authentic leadership in New Zealand”.
The key findings, says Miller, made for gloomy reading.
“Leaders appear to have strong need to be right, coupled with distorted sense of self and an unwillingness to change,” she says, quoting from the report.
“New Zealand leaders’ strengths were mostly focused on the ‘what’,” says Miller. Their top-scoring attributes were an ability to make values-based and/or difficult decisions, say what they mean and use data analysis for making decisions.
Yet when it came to how leaders were going about their jobs, they scored poorly. Their worst attributes were their inability to admit mistakes or seek feedback. They had poor self-awareness about their capabilities and were not good at seeking challenging opinions.
Since then, Miller believes, we’ve gone backwards. When she was preparing her conference presentation, Miller spoke with senior-level executive recruiters Sequel Partners’ Mark Ashcroft and Chris Johnson from Kerridge & Partners.
How, she wanted to know, has the capability of senior leaders and managers changed in the five years since Levy and Bentley wrote their paper?
“My question was, given that the environment, including technology, has changed so much, to what extent has leadership in New Zealand changed as quickly in response?
“Both of them came back saying the GFC has caused most New Zealand leaders to go backwards not forwards. Look at the dichotomy of trust and fear: more people are now fearful for their roles, of budget cuts and of getting it wrong. They’ve become far more risk averse than ever before. They’re scared to stick their neck out, make mistake or try something different in case they blot their copybook.” M


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