Sunday, March 11, 2012

Willingness to be vulnerable

Gary Dunning, the Executive Director of the Celebrity Series of Boston, the impresario who presents a large variety of artists to audiences here, wrote about some musicians and dancers who had recently appeared:

They all share a key quality of great artists -- the willingness to be vulnerable enough to reveal their inner selves through their performance.  I believe this lies at the heart of transformative performances.

I like Gary's view that an artistic event can be a transformative experience.  Those of us who have been lucky enough to see great artists in person knows that he is right.  There is something about those moments that leaves a lasting impression, that helps you re-place yourself in a busy world and gives you the impetus to do something positive for others when you leave the theater.

I am attracted to Gary's formulation concerning vulnerability in other respects as well.  My regular readers know that I've spent many pages here discussing the role of leaders and coaches in enabling  teams -- whether in corporations or sports -- to face internal and external challenges and excel in the face of tough odds.  I believe that a necessary condition for the leader or coach in the situation of trying to enable transformational changes in his or her team is a willingness to be vulnerable enough to reveal his or her inner self.  Obviously, this does not take place through an artistic performance, but through the daily performance on the job.

Months ago, I explained an aspect of this, focusing on the the work of Robert Greenleaf to as he set forth the concept of "servant leadership." Here's an excerpt:

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first... The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

A servant leader enables collaborative learning in his or her organization.  An essential attribute for a person trying to create this type of environment is to understand how your team learns. A key aspect of learning theory is that the teacher (whether coach or CEO) has to have sufficient empathy with the students to understand where they are in the learning process. Have they just begun to get interested in the topic? Are they at that awkward stage in which they feel distress at not yet having mastered the material? Or, have they arrived at the stage of pleasure in having incorporated a new framework into their thought patterns? Your job as coach is to be alert to these phases of learning, to apply or release pressure as the situation demands, and to be generous with positive reinforcement. (See the post below for a contrasting example!)

Empathy, though, is much more effective when it goes both ways, towards the coach as well as towards the student.  This is possible when the coach reveals enough of himself or herself and sends a message to the team that his or her underlying values, fears, and concerns are very much like their own.  I am not suggesting that a leader has to have such a touchy-feely relationship with the team members that every meeting is a sensitivity session.  Rather, I am suggesting that displaying vulnerability does not undermine authority.  It enhances it in a manner consistent with the principles of servant leadership.

If any environment should be ripe for servant leadership, empathy, and willingness to be vulnerable, it should be the health care world.   There, well-intentioned, highly trained people have joined together in the goal of alleviating human suffering caused by disease. There is no more welcoming substrate for the kind of collaborative learning that can reduce harm, improve the quality of care, and enhance the ability of front-line people to have the satisfaction that comes from improving the work environment for themselves and their patients.  Instead, though, many leaders in the field insist on taking an authoritarian view of the world, controlling knowledge and harboring power -- and to today's topic -- remaining emotionally distant from those "below them."

It may or may not be too late to change the attitudes of those at the top of the profession.  After all, they got to where they are as a result of certain behavior patterns.  But it is not to late to inculcate a broader set of values to medical students and residents who are on their way up.  I have written below about introducing concepts of Lean process improvement to medical students and residents.  Underlying Lean is the idea of collaborative learning.

John Shook, the CEO of the Lean Enterprise Institute, recently explained that learning collaboratively means more than each person learning individually while occupying a shared space. Collaborative learning is two or more partners who actively endeavor to learn together through shared experience.  Empathy must accompany that learning.  Willingness to be vulnerable is a concomitant of empathy.

1 comment:

Ali Farquhar said...

This post truly resonates - thanks for drawing attention to one of the persistent leadership myths that the leader must know all and command and control to be credible. Many healthcare (and other industry) leaders protect themselves by operating at a distance. In my experience, this is often based in a story they believe 'keeps them safe': "If I reveal any inner fragility, any indecision, any hole in my knowledge, I won't be good enough and my reputation will crumble. Therefore, I must at all costs be seen as decisive, in control, and in possession of all the answers." It's very human and understandable to want to maintain one's reputation. The irony is that the chosen means usually backfires. When leaders embrace their fallibility, commit to having all the right questions rather than all the right answers, learn to listen genuinely to others, focus on the growth and development of those who follow, and relinquish their exhausting control over every moving part, they usually find that none of the anticipated calamities come to pass. Instead, they develop an environment of trust and collaboration in which creativity can flourish and others can become genuinely engaged in the common endeavor of finding solutions for persistent healthcare challenges. Humble servant leadership and the courage to be vulnerable makes leaders more effective and credible in the end.
Ali Farquhar