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Embracing vulnerability in management in the face of mistakes

It’s hard to admit when you’ve stepped in it from a management perspective, but it comes with an important lesson to take to heart.

A Black man talks animatedly to another coworker in a one-on-one meeting.

Talk about a week of conviction. In the midst of putting thoughts into words for an article about the value of keeping a measure of humility in the workplace, I was dealt an enormous serving of humble pie, complete with whipped cream and egg on my face. 

The irony was not lost on me and I’m grateful to have weathered the experience and the humbling that came with it. Like a wave out in the ocean, it kept rolling in too, until I had to exit the situation altogether and let the heaviness sink in. It hurts to hurt someone. 

I utterly failed not one, but two of my dearest staff members this week and I fell flat into a quagmire I was stunned to find myself in. As a 20-year owner of a small company, I am no stranger to staffing dynamics, the needs of my crew, the challenges of multi-generational staffing in the workplace, and the inherent struggles of navigating the desire to be one of the team while also being the one leading the team. 

The clarity I received, with wobbly knees, was that somewhere along the seemingly calm dog days of summer that I was experiencing in usual cyclical slowdown of business, there was a brewing of something I was unaware of and without knowing that definitions of what was considered PC and what wasn’t, I stepped over a line, and no amount of apology and pleas of ignorance would suffice. The damage was done, the hurt was felt even if I didn’t understand it. That particular piece of the humble pie was an errant mistaken case of not being aware of the hurtfulness of certain acronyms in the same vein that the term ‘handicapped bathroom’ had morphed into ‘wheelchair accessible bathroom’ without so much as a memo of the change. My other misstep, not so much.

As upper management and leaders can attest, there is a bit of a power trip attached when you create a business or rise up the corporate ladder to a rung that allows you to see well below. Subconsciously, you create an inner voice that you may not even recognize, that says, “yes, you are correct, yes, you win, yes, your way is better”. 

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Al Pacino recently welcomed a new baby at age 84 and while that was a remarkable story in and of itself, it was an understory that intrigued me as I read through the headline. He hinted at what fatherhood was like for an actor accustomed to star treatment, when he gets home after work. “When I do a movie, and I come back, I’m stunned for the first twenty minutes. These people are asking me to do things for them? Huh?” Pacino said of his kids. “I’m not being waited on? Wait a minute. Uh-oh, it’s about them! That action satisfies. I like it.” 

It takes a very strong and measured character to respectfully voice a concern that let me know that I could make someone feel small, beneath her abilities or question her very worth. Those words cut especially deep because of my own struggles with the very same painful words tossed my way, even humorously, as a child. I knew immediately what she referenced, and it pained me to no end. It later caused me to question every word I uttered as I’m sure it pained her to reevaluate every action and task she performed. The value in this very human transaction though, for me, was to take what I heard and let it sink in and challenge me to be a better human, a better boss, and to question and test myself more regularly when it comes to the relationships that surround me. She also needed to be heard, be valued, and shown her worth.

Some will say that exerting a measure of authority to an employee and the discomfort they receive comes with the territory and hello, it’s called a job for a reason. Yes, if you are merely trying to get someone to perform without capacity for wanting to remain with you. 

Just as entrepreneurs are constantly looking around the bend for the next big idea, product or business opportunity, so too should we be looking for ways to keep our colleagues engaged, productive and growing.

Evaluations in small organizations can be tricky in keeping the lines of communication open and tangle free. They can come in many forms and since anonymity is difficult in a small group, there have been times where we’ve had one-on-ones with each of our team members to solicit really positive “what and how can we be a better org?” or “what could we do to help you in your job?” or “what needs do you have in your job that aren’t being filled?”. That type of questioning, if asked in a genuinely curious and caring way, can offer tremendous insight, and if your skin is thick enough, you might even find some valuable self-reflecting nuggets for personal evaluation. 

This time around, the questions didn’t get to be asked because too much time and dust had gathered since last inquiring and a breakdown occurred, for better or worse. Worse in the short term but thankfully, I’m a steadfast learner and I desire accountability so this temperature taking will yield good things to come. Vulnerability is not a terrible thing. 

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In fact, both Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – A Leadership Fable”, says that leaders that can “admit their mistakes and be vulnerable are more likely to create an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their own struggles and learning from each other’s experiences.” In his article in a Forbes newsletter, Luis Romero quoted New York Times bestseller, Brene Brown saying “vulnerability is not weakness, but rather ‘our most accurate measurement of courage.’ Brown’s research has shown that leaders who are willing to be vulnerable and take risks are more likely to build trusting relationships, encourage innovation, and foster a culture of creativity and growth.”

That is my hope. It is my continuing legacy to provide that safety and when I fail, it is upon me to also lead by correction and set the example that leaders can fail and rise up again. And again.

A servant’s heart is one that serves another, puts another’s needs above her own and does so with the right motivation. It’s not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself, less.

Elaine Lincoln is the VP and face behind a full-time wedding venue called Kindred Oaks, begun in 2003. In 2007, a floral studio called Zuzu’s Petals was added and services both onsite and offsite custom floral orders. In 2018, Lincoln Chapel, a unique concrete chapel was created to answer the need for small elopements. All are under the umbrella of Parties to Grow, Inc. Elaine is tired but frequently fueled by dark coffee.


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