Vulnerability and Boldness: Twin Keys to Leadership

If you want to be an effective Catholic leader, part of a passionate team that bears lots of fruit in a parish, diocese, or other Catholic organization, then you must be vulnerable and you must be bold.

Wait a minute – those are two qualities you might not expect to see paired up.  Many would say they are contradictory.  Vulnerability is weak and passive; boldness is strong and aggressive, right?

Not so, according to the principles of our Evangelium Consulting Group (ECG), based on the work of top business consultant and Catholic Pat Lencioni.  In our prescription for healthy leadership teams, vulnerability is the essential but unfortunately rare virtue of being unguarded and open.  It frees us to say things like, “I don’t know,” “what do you think?”, “you’re better at that than me,” “I made a mistake,” or even, “I’m sorry.” It allows us to celebrate – not envy or undercut – other people’s strengths and successes. 

In other words, vulnerability frees teams from dysfunctional politics. No more unspoken resistance or guarded, post-meeting conversations in the parking lot.  If its members embrace vulnerability, a team can achieve great goals, and with greater efficiency and joy than they would ever have imagined.

Naturally, people need to really care about and trust each other before they will take the risk of showing this kind of vulnerability.  So we at ECG focus intently on building up that foundation of trust (a topic for another time). 

Once the members of a team are willing to be vulnerable, they have set the table for boldness. In fact, vulnerability is itself the first bold act, because it takes a risk, removing the ego-protecting masks and armor we have been taught to wear from childhood.  After that, meetings and planning are infused with a whole new energy and zest.

When we work with teams, we make sure the leaders know that vulnerability has to start with them, and our training methodology prioritizes that.   If the leader refuses to be open and transparent, you can bet the rest of the team will cling to their armor.

In training leadership groups led by pastors and even bishops, I had braced myself for possible resistance to vulnerability.  Their leadership is heightened by the fact that it is first of all spiritual, which no CEO of a Fortune 500 company can say.  That leadership in the name of Christ is a beautiful gift, but its very uniqueness can sometimes incline toward a protective aloofness on the human side. 

But I must say that I have been moved and humbled to see every one of these shepherds – strong men all – understand and embrace the virtue of vulnerability.  They quickly saw that this did not pose a threat to their role as father and leader, but deepened and enhanced it.  Indeed, they found it liberating to have a trusted team with whom they could work in a spirit of openness, acknowledging their own limitations and need for help.   

The Catholic leader who is both bold and vulnerable imitates Jesus in another way as well.  He or she takes the risk to speak with unfiltered honesty to others on the team, to both encourage and correct, to hold accountable.  Again, Pat Lencioni’s work has shown the truth of this principle in transforming the effectiveness of corporate leaders and their teams.  Truth is truth, but all the more powerfully when it comes to us from the Gospel, modeled by Christ.

How often Jesus needed to correct his disciples by word and example – especially Peter, the one he named their leader!  Virtually always it was when they let their egos get in the way, when they cared more about their own safety and glory than the mission to which they had been called and the Lord who had called them. But Jesus’ summons to accountability came always in the context of love. 

Two thousand years later, our leadership teams in parishes, dioceses and other Catholic organizations reflect the same fallen foibles as Jesus’ team of twelve, but our high-stakes mission remains the same: drawing our brothers and sisters to fullness of life in this world and for eternity.  Shall we be any less diligent in working together with vibrant and healthy principles than Southwest Airlines or IBM? Shall we settle for boring meetings, petty rivalries, unfocused goals and mediocre results?  Surely not.

What to do, then?  Start by putting into practice the twin keys to leadership: vulnerability and boldness.  Pray for these virtues.  If you are a leader, try gently preparing those who report to you for a time when you will sit down (one-on-one or, ideally, as a team) and talk respectfully about one thing each of you appreciates about the other, and one thing each can improve.  This should be done reciprocally with all who are part of the conversation.  Precede this delicate but fruitful exercise by a couple of fun lunches or other social gatherings.  Prime folks by encouraging them to read The Advantage, by Pat Lencioni, to see these principles and many more fleshed out.

May God in his Mercy lead us all.