Many years ago, I attended Peter Block’s Management School. There were four leaders in my group and several “students” we were responsible for leading over a 6-month period. People would look to me and my colleagues as advisors even though we were, in fact, students ourselves but taking on the role of leaders. I said to my colleagues during a leadership team debrief, that leadership is truly learning in public. The saying bubbles up from time to time and it is something I share with the leaders I coach often. Why? Because inherent in learning in public is a strong sense of “willingness.” As we all know, having a leadership title is not the same thing as leading.
One definition of willingness is “readiness to do something that has an air of uncertain results”. In my experience there are two common denominators present in most leaders who are willing to learn in public: They possess, and value, a learning orientation and they are comfortable showing vulnerability in their leadership.
The Commitment to A Learning Orientation
Many of the assessments and behavioral interview questions I use with leaders measure Learning Orientation and define it as: The tendency or habit of seeking to increase one’s knowledge and skills; toward valuing the learning process as a means to accomplish mastery over a task; toward being interested in challenging activities; and toward using information seeking as a personal strategy when problem solving.
One way to strengthen our learning orientation is to look a particular issue and measure whether our response falls into more of a Performance Orientation or a Learning Orientation.
Think of a specific challenge that you recently faced at work. Put a check mark next to all the reactions below that best capture your thinking and behavior as it relates to this situation:
- Did I get a good grade? In other words, how well was my work received?
- Did I do this correctly?
- What do I have to do to get a better result and have people hear me more clearly?
- Is there any benefit to me if I go the extra mile?
- How can I make this better?
- Did I accurately communicate and reflect the ideas of my team?
- Is there another way to solve this challenge?
- What is the impact of this work on others?
If you have more circles in 1-4, your thinking is categorized as a performance orientation. If you have more circles in 5-8, your thinking and behavior falls into the learning orientation.
To further develop our willingness to learn in public as leaders, it is important to look at the concept of vulnerability.
The Courage to Be Vulnerable
Brené Brown has a refreshing definition of vulnerability that is more about courage than anything else:
“The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage. Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.”
Willingness! I don’t need to tell you the importance of building the capacity for human connection in the workplace. I also don’t need to tell you that it is missing from many teams, projects, divisions, and organizations. The good news is rather ironic. While the foundation of vulnerability is accepting a loss of control, individuals have absolute control over their willingness to emerge as more vulnerable leaders. While many leaders have been “raised” to project a certain image regardless of what is going on inside them, this strategy often backfires. Authenticity builds connection and, in my experience, leaders who are open to being vulnerable, comfortable not having all the answers, and open to new perspectives, are far more effective in the workplace and beyond.
Reflection Survey for Vulnerability:
Think of the same challenge you used in the Learning Orientation reflection above and answer the following questions:
- How effectively did I take responsibility for my mistakes? On a scale of 1-5, 1 being you typically own up and 5 being you are very comfortable owning your mistakes, rate yourself =
- How often did I ask for help when I needed it? On a scale from 1-5, 1 meaning you rarely ask for help and 5 meaning you are comfortable and do it frequently, rate yourself =
- How willing was I to seek feedback? On a scale from 1-5, 1 being you keep moving forward and get the job done without input and 5 being an authentic effort to take time out to gather feedback from others, rate yourself =
- How dedicated was I to celebrating progress? On a scale from 1-5, 1 being rarely because there is always more work when one project wraps up and 5 being often because you understand the importance of honoring the work to date, rate yourself =
Your Total Score Out of 20 = ?
If your score is between 15-20, you are a leader that is comfortable showing vulnerability in the workplace so keep practicing the skills you have developed.
If your score is between 10-15, you are a leader that has a great deal of awareness about what vulnerability looks like in the workplace and you are committed to developing the courage to grow in this area.
If your score is below 10, you have a high level of self-awareness about your growth areas. Self-Awareness is the key to growing a strong foundation. Now, you just need to invest time in your development in this area.
Learning in public is not easy. It requires courage to step into the unknown, ask others to follow, learn alongside us, and sometimes stumble. As any great leader will tell you, the rewards are infinite because not only does this level of “willingness” improve the work experience, it improves the human experience.
I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes:
“Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.”
― Meister Eckhart