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The secret ingredient of successful leadership

Business books on leadership often cite certain qualities that make a great leader, such as discipline, focus, determination, and perseverance. It feels like the stories of “great” leaders start with waking up at 5am, plunging into ice baths, or wearing the same style of outfit every day.

But in my experience, great leadership is not only about your daily routine but also about your willingness to connect with your team on a human level. In other words, to be vulnerable. 

Behind the scenes

Last updated

18 Aug 2022
How Vulnerable Leaders Can Help Create Better Teams Landscape

Here’s a great example. In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown writes about authentic leaders combining a “strong back and open front.” For me, the strong back represents my confidence level and boundaries. The open front is about staying vulnerable and curious. 

Authentic leadership combines that goal-oriented, go-for-it mentality with building transparent, open, and honest relationships with your team. You can’t build a successful business on hustle alone. At some point, either you or the business will fall apart from lack of purpose or exhaustion.

Some companies discount the value of vulnerability in their leaders. From my experience, this stems from a misconception of what encouraging vulnerability will do in the workplace: like showing weakness or oversharing information that should be kept behind closed doors. 

When in reality, the opposite is true. At Hotjar, we work with our management teams to create a culture of human-to-human leadership. 

So whether you’re in a leadership position now or are looking to show up better for your team, here are three ideas to consider that will help you build transparent, open, and honest relationships with your team. 

1. Start with you

It took me some time to realize what being an authentic leader really meant. I bought into the idea that leaders have to look and be a certain way.

But what I’ve come to realize over time is that a leader is ultimately a person that makes a team feel safe. Psychological safety—the concept that you can be yourself at work, with confidence and candor to get the job done and be a human while doing it—is incredibly important to cultivate. 

Nearly 50% of employees say they’ve held back when voicing an opinion or concern at work for fear of negative consequences or because they don’t want to be seen as difficult to work with. What are we doing as leaders if our employees feel this way?

To me, leaders build great culture by uniting others with a:

  • Psychologically safe environment

  • Shared purpose

  • Set of goals and the framework to reach them

That’s it.

Yes, there are plenty of tasks in between those three big ideas, from evaluating performance to setting budgets to hiring. But leadership doesn’t happen in spreadsheets or slideshows. Leadership happens in the small moments where you can see another person, step aside, and help them through a challenge. After all, why spend so much time finding amazing people if you don’t let them do their jobs?

To me, the best leaders follow the principles of servant leadership, a term coined by researcher Robert Greenleaf in 1970. He defined servant leadership as “servant first…then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader-first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or acquire material possessions.”

Servant leadership

This sounds touchy-feely, but there’s real data behind how well servant leadership works. This leadership style yields more positive and constructive behavior, more engagement, more trust, and an overall higher performance. 

By looking at it with this lens, my role is then to make everyone else successful, and the best way I can do that is to create an environment where people feel like they can be themselves. 

If my team members are having a bad week, they should be able to say that they’re having a bad week. They should feel comfortable admitting a mistake on a project. When work is really hard, they should be able to say so, no matter the reason.

It’s up to you to encourage that vulnerability by being vulnerable yourself and trusting that if you get out of the way, then your team will shine.

2. Be a doer

At Hotjar, we believe that great leaders don't always want to be leaders or have that goal in mind. 

What I mean by that is, they’re doers first. They know what challenges their team faces because they’ve done it before themselves, or something similar. Even as we’ve grown as a company, we’ve done our best to avoid “middle management” as much as we can, preferring to build a network of leaders that focus more on coaching and empowering vs. policing.

This looks like a web of five-person teams so that no manager is juggling more than four direct reports at a time. We also keep that structure as much as we can, to avoid creating top-heavy teams. The lead is always embedded directly within that team, and that rule of five scales up and across. 

It’s simple, but it makes it easier for people to build relationships with one another. Smaller teams with leaders who “get” it build more trust and ensure that everyone on the team can feel seen and heard, because even leadership has gone through those challenges before.

When people do approach me saying they want to be a leader, I make them reflect long and hard on the “why” behind that ambition. There’s nothing wrong with raising your hand; I want to make sure that their heart is ready for the open, coaching-first mindset of leadership that we demand from our leaders here at Hotjar, and they’re not just checking a box.

It’s very common for people to “want more” to prove something to themselves or others, but this is typically not a great reason to want to be a leader. That’s why at Hotjar, we offer the ability to grow not just through leadership so that individuals feel like they have somewhere to go, and our leaders truly want to empower and grow others.

3. Build from the top 

Leaders aren’t the only ones that need to be vulnerable. It’s the entire organization. What that looks like on a day-to-day basis is making sure that there is time set aside for people to be people, not just workers.

I’m always shocked at how many people I speak to at other companies that don’t have a 1:1 touchpoint with their manager every week. 

Now, why is that important? Ultimately, 1:1s aren’t about checking project status or making sure work is being done on time (that’s partially why we have such an emphasis on goal-setting through OKRs, for example.) It’s about building a human connection with your team. Rather than, “How are things going?” it should be, “How are you feeling, and how can I support you?”

In her landmark book Radical Candor, Kim Scott focuses on a new style of communication with the same name. Essentially, it’s the idea that you can care personally and challenge directly to give clear feedback with empathy.

#Source: radicalcandor.com
Source: radicalcandor.com

We cultivate more vulnerability within our team by doing three things:

  1. Investing in leadership training to provide safe spaces to learn, ask questions, and get vulnerable with one another

  2. Introducing a community of leaders to build peer-to-peer learning 

  3. Building regular touchpoints (we call them “Lightning Learning”) where teammates can share 3-5 minute stories about something they’ve learned on a personal level to start those conversations

An exercise to try with your team:

One exercise that has always stuck with me is a very simple one: gather your team together and ask them to write down their wildest, biggest dream—and their deepest, darkest fear.When I’ve done this with my team, I’m amazed at how many people are willing to share the highs and the lows. It’s so powerful to hear the stories that make us who we are.

Real human experiences about the pleasant and not so pleasant will come up, but the purpose is to help others achieve their dreams.

It’s all about what makes us human. Everyone might not want to share, and that’s okay. Building a culture where you can get real with one another takes time and psychological safety. It won’t happen overnight, but that’s okay. You need to start with the small behaviors that show people you’re going to stand by them no matter what and that you’ll be present for them. 

But when you do these simple things, that’s when the magic happens.

Embrace vulnerability to create better teams

It’s time to shed the idea once and for all that leadership requires you to know everything or hold up a shield of armor, so your teams only see the ‘work’ side of you. 

Part of being vulnerable is being willing to take off the mask. Say what you don’t know or that you’ve made a mistake.

Sustaining this while your business grows isn’t easy. In fact, at Hotjar, it took a long time for us to realize that we needed to invest in our people and training as we scale. We’re still working on building vulnerability—but it starts with one person at a time.

What does vulnerability in the workplace mean to you? How can you show up better for yourself each day and allow others to access all parts of you?

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