The power of vulnerability for resilient leadership.
The pandemic continues to shape our lives, including the way we lead. For most, the workplace feels very different than it did a couple of years ago. As a result, leaders and employees alike are more prone to burnout and stress than ever before. Historically, leaders felt that showing their vulnerability was a weakness, undermining their effectiveness and authority.
Leaders like Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Nabeela Ixtabalan, EVP of People and Corporate Affairs for Walmart Canada, are standing out and having honest conversations with their leadership teams, setting the example for their employees. Huffington and Ixtabalan recently joined ForbesBook Author Craig Dowden for a CEO Mastermind Fireside Chat to discuss the important role of vulnerability in fostering resilience.
Huffington knows this journey all too well after she collapsed from burnout while building the Huffington Post.
“I was buying into the delusion that I had to be a Superfounder and a Supermom. I thought taking care of myself was self indulgent. After I collapsed and broke my cheekbone from exhaustion, that was the beginning of my journey to recognize that being vulnerable and knowing when I needed to ask for help is actually a sign of strength. It also best serves the people I care for most.”
Ixtabalan had a similar experience. She noted that she joined Walmart Canada in the midst of the pandemic and was facing “tremendous organizational fatigue.” While she attributed much of this fatigue to the pandemic, she recognized that things needed to change. She held “listening sessions” where they “identified employee well-being as a long-term strategic priority.” Even though Walmart Canada previously launched support options for their employees, she saw they needed more.
This is where Arianna Huffington and the team at Thrive Global came in. After Huffington spoke about well-being and wellness to the Walmart Canada VPs, it launched a powerful collaboration between the two companies. Together, they created an initiative that provides support and resources to every Walmart Canada employee and associate; a total which exceeds 100,000. Ixtabalan shared, “I believe this is a movement that more and more employees are going to expect their leaders and employers to be a part of.”
Huffington firmly believes that “storytelling is a big part of promoting behavior change. Those stories start with the top leaders and cascade down into the organization.” Ixtabalan agrees and shared that one of the reasons why this initiative was so successful was that the senior leaders fully embraced and connected with it.
At the start, they collected stories of leaders who were “willing to be vulnerable, willing to talk about [their] own burnout, willing to talk about the micro-steps [they] took to turn things around.” Ixtabalan shared that leading by example was not easy. In her first 90 days on the job, she told all 100,000 employees that she was a recovering workaholic who had struggled with anxiety her whole life – including suffering a stress induced anxiety attack on the side of a Houston highway. She acknowledges that she was “very uncomfortable admitting my own struggles because it felt like I would be demonstrating an inability to perform my job or be able to hold my own as a leader.” However, what she has learned is that:
“When I have a choice to choose between believing in others’ judgement or believing in their compassion, I choose to believe that people will be compassionate. And that gets me over the hump of that fear of vulnerability. And it pays off every time.”
Storytelling is key to building resilience because it changes our narrative. A “false truth” Huffington mentioned is “that asking for help is a weakness. These stories show how everyone benefits from letting others in and exercising self-care.”
This is not just a feel-good exercise. When leaders and organizations embrace the concept of vulnerability, results follow. Ixtabalan highlighted “there is a strong business case for this practice” and revealed that they have seen “much, much higher levels of engagement” since the launch of the initiative. Huffington added that “when leaders are open and transparent, it initiates and creates a groundswell where their people are much more likely to be open.”
While leaders can be reluctant to admit their own vulnerabilities for fear of being weak, the science and practice of resilience suggests otherwise. When we embrace our humanity and are open to being vulnerable, we exhibit tremendous strength. It unlocks our ability to receive the support that we need and also serves as a powerful role model for others to follow our lead. Rather than seeing them as dichotomous, we would be better served seeing resilience and vulnerability as the ultimate dynamic duo.