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Why Businesses Should Become More Vulnerable

10/24/2012 10:10 EDT | Updated 12/24/2012 05:12 EST

If you like TED talks as much as I do, then you've likely come across video of Brene Brown's talk on the power of vulnerability. Apart from being a very entertaining speech, Ms. Brown delivers a really important message. In a day when the world has demanded more transparency, more authenticity and more reality, business needs to find a way to be more vulnerable.

In North America, the word "vulnerable" has a negative connotation -- it's weak, lame and too sensitive. It's, well, vulnerable. But Brown advocates for a new interpretation. She explains very clearly, that an acceptance of vulnerability is really more about getting over the discomfort or fear of being exposed.

It is a rare business or business leader that will complete their corporate lifecycle without at least one period of discomfort and exposure. Often, this happens during the early days of an issue or in times of crisis. Historically, at these times, businesses often stiffened their upper lip, offering as little information and taking as little blame as humanly possible.

Under Brown's interpretation, leaders need to demonstrate some vulnerability in times of blame and shame. But, in the world of corporate communications, the worst place to begin is fear.

Think about the US sub-prime mortgage crash and all of the domestic and international financial institutions, government bureaucrats and elected officials involved. Do you remember anyone accepting responsibility or being accountable for even a part of the economic debacle?

Did anyone say "we're sorry and we'll fix it"? Or do you remember a lot of finger pointing, confusion and pretending? While lips were stiffened and chests were puffed, you can imagine the fear felt industry-wide.

This may have been the perfect demonstration of a moment in time, when vulnerability could have saved a lot of suffering and what will be one of the longest economic recoveries in history. In the ensuing years, some individuals have stepped up with admissions of malpractice. But, this is almost the opposite of vulnerability -- the suggestion being "We knew something was wrong, but we couldn't admit fault."

On the flip side, there are some great case studies of business vulnerability. Most of the best-managed crises of this era were loosely based on a sense of vulnerability.

Here are a few common sense rules to ensure a crisis is not only well communicated, but leverages the transparency that vulnerability can provide an organization.

  • Acknowledge the Impact -- One of the hardest facts to face when businesses make mistakes is the impact those mistakes have on others, some small and some widespread. Historically, the bigger the impact, the more likely businesses would ignore it. Today, the larger the impact, the greater the urgency to be brave and acknowledge your role.

  • Be empathetic -- Sometimes to communicate well in an issue, you need to put yourself on the shard end of the stick. That means recognizing the situation, putting yourself in the shoes of your audience, and bearing as much of their pain as possible.

  • Respect your organization -- Whether you employ a few people or tens of thousands doesn't matter. The way you handle the situation will reflect on each and every one of them. Make them proud to work for an organization that takes responsibility, fixes the problem and minimizes the impact.

  • "The Buck Stops Here" -- Take responsibility for your actions and resist the desire to shift the blame. The most successful crises are addressed by the top dog (CEO) and focus on the issues and the solution - and the more serious the crisis, the more attention, communication and vulnerability required.

Sir Richard Branson is a great example. For all of his flare and fanfare, when one of this trains crashed in 2007, he was on the scene, addressing the issue directly and listening throughout the crisis. And yes, Virgin's and his own reputation came out on top.

I'm not suggesting that leaders need to be vulnerable just in times of crisis -- that's simply the most important time. The fact is, the greatest leaders communicate from a point of vulnerability regularly. Meaning they listen as much or more than they speak. They recognize great ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. And, they embrace change and help their organizations face the fear change can create.

I've seen this in action when I worked for Annette Verschuren, former President of The Home Depot Canada and current Chair and CEO of NRStor. It took me years to figure out what her secret was to inspiring so many, so easily -- but it was vulnerability and it made her leadership awe inspiring.

Vulnerability is a business skill that every leader should consider in good times and bad. It's not weak. It takes greater strength to recognize and acknowledge criticism than to will it away. It's not submissive. It's about taking responsibility and being accountable. It's not being afraid to make tough decisions. It's about recognizing the impact of them.