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  • Debra Cadman

Being vulnerable, conforming and other leadership quandries



Our 3-month campaign is a series of written building blocks on the subject of communications. June is all about engagement and transparency and why it matters to make work more human.

This specific piece is about how being human means being true to ourselves and that often means showing our vulnerability or embracing characteristics that might not be typically associated with being a great leader.

Challenging a culture

I have been listening to Brené Brown’s book called Daring Greatly. I love listening to an audio book in the car as it feels like I am really benefiting from the drive. I am late to the Brené Brown show but now I have her in my life, I am very happy with her.

One morning I was listening to Brené and she was talking about organisations where a shame or blame culture is prevalent, like an infestation, and how it is our duty to call it out and address it when we see it.

It made me think back to my time as an HR Director when I worked in the corporate world. Our CEO, whom we all loved, left the organisation and his boss managed us until they restructured. This particular individual had a style of management that was based on shaming and blaming. I recall being in a board meeting where he went round each of the board and asked why the figures for the division for that period were so bad, shouting and humiliating each individual in turn. Before he got to me, I lost my cool and said that I didn’t think this was a way to treat people and that he seemed to be assuming no one cared. His response? "Well at least one of you has some balls”. That was not what I was expecting him to say and, at the time, I was probably pleased that he thought I was a strong person. But I have such a different view of this meeting now.

Questioning myself

When I talked about this with other colleagues, some of them told me to stop being so emotional and more resilient. I believed them. I thought I wasn’t resilient, I thought I was too emotional. “That is just how he behaves” was a common theme. This man was very senior and well respected by the guys who ran the business. He got results. He was actually a bully but I didn’t see it at the time, I thought the problem was mine rather than his.

I have since realised that I didn’t fit in properly within the shame and blame culture for very good reasons! It doesn’t fit with my way of doing things; where being human matters most of all. I do things differently. That has led me to encourage others to do things differently. I question things, using my influence over the smaller businesses I now support.

Demonstrating the human touch

I have realised I have a different sort of resilience. I am strong but also emotional. I can be vulnerable and share this willingly. These character traits are fantastic for creating an empathetic environment where people can connect, relate and engage with you.

The outdated dictatorial and authoritarian cultures need to flex, adapt and learn to mirror the people who work within them. There will always be friction when you try and make people behave in a way that isn’t natural to them. Square pegs and round holes and all of that!

Finding your place

It’s ok to be different, to not conform, to challenge things and to ask questions.

I read in the Kornferry report on “the World of Talent in 2020” that “there is a change of focus in leadership to more purpose-driven leadership replacing the old method of structure and controls”. I hope this is true. I hope that work and businesses evolve to be a more human place, where vulnerability is embraced and shines a positive light on contrary behaviours.

I could have listened to the guy at my old company who told me on my last day “I think you will find it tough out there”. I didn’t. I am still surviving and, more than that, I am thriving. We can all thrive when we’re allowed to. Make it your business to challenge things or find your own place somewhere else.

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