In Sports and Business, Vulnerability is Power

When superstar left fielder Ronald Acuna tore his ACL last July, the chances of the Atlanta Braves chances heading to the World Series plummeted to just 2%, according to Las Vegas odds-makers. Analysts were 98% sure the team wouldn’t survive the playoffs. Yet, the Braves actually won the World Series, demonstrating power hitting, teamwork and a resilient culture.  

How did they beat the odds? What was their secret sauce?  

Starting Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson told me it’s because they embraced vulnerability. But what does this really mean?

Long gone are the days of individual superstars – in sports or business – acting like invincible, omnipotent, know-it-alls who simply can’t lose. The recent case of Elizabeth Holmes throws this into stark relief.

But should leaders embrace vulnerability as Swanson suggests? Isn’t that a sign of weakness, not power?  

“Winning starts with a player’s ability to embrace vulnerability and experience the full range of human emotions,” according to Swanson. This sounds like an odd thing to hear from a professional athlete. Many of us have been raised to view our own vulnerability as a sign of weakness. Even as children we are taught to show strength and resolve above all else, particularly in team sports and other competitive situations. Have you been to a Little League game lately? The intensity and competitive spirit are off the charts.

Yet, digging beneath the surface, vulnerability turns out to be a prerequisite to continuous improvement. You must first be willing to recognize and embrace your imperfections before you can improve upon them. For example, a player may need to try new techniques, or take advice from a hitting coach or even from another player – vying for your starting spot on the team – to reach the next level. 

The same is true in business. Brad Smith, past CEO and current Chairman of the Board of Intuit, is so comfortable in his own skin, and willing to embrace vulnerability, that he literally posted the results of his annual 360 performance review on his office door. Everyone could see his strengths and weaknesses. How many leaders do you know that are this secure? Yet, Smith believed that such transparency would send a powerful signal to the entire company that continuous improvement is an important strategic mandate.  By being a role model at the top of the house, Smith encouraged all employees to pick a small handful (two or three) leadership development goals each year and work hard to improve. 

In sports and business, a leader willing to be this kind of a role model sets the right tone.  This vulnerability cascades down and across the organization. Suddenly everyone has permission to focus on their specific development needs and create action plans to bridge personal gaps. A culture of continuous improvement is set into motion. In today’s fast changing business world this kind of culture is compulsory. Today’s skills and behaviors might be outdated in a year or two. 

On the other hand, the exact opposite of vulnerability is when leaders attempt to project a perfect image. It’s a ruse. They do so because they’re intensely afraid to being judged and shamed by others. Their insecurity leads them to project an aura of “perfection” to shield themselves from the inevitable pain of being ridiculed. It’s an inauthentic strategy that’s doomed to fail. Whenever you see someone in sports – or business – that acts like a know it all, you can be sure they’re hiding some sort of weakness or insecurity.  As Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft once said, “It’s better to be a learn-it-all than a know-it-all.”

Vulnerability has other benefits, too. It’s key to human connection and trust. Such openness helps colleagues give and receive honest feedback, advice, and support to each other.  

Ben Breier is a former college baseball star and successful CEO. When he was the CEO of Kindred Healthcare, he helped the company navigate unprecedented change in the health care industry and orchestrate Kindred’s sale to private equity behemoths Texas Pacific Group and Welsh Carson. There were many moving pieces and different constituents to satisfy, from Wall Street investors, Washington politicians, Board members, local officials, strategic partners. and of course, employees across the country. Breier attributes a large part of his success to his ability to forge deep, authentic connections with every one of these constituents. “You have to really put yourself in their shoes and create a win-win solution. Vulnerability is key. The worst thing you can do is act like you have the perfect answer and shove it down their throats,” Breier said. “Many of the soft skills I learned while playing baseball at University of Pennsylvania turned out to be highly fungible and quite practical in the board room, too.

“Self-awareness and continuous improvement are fundamental” he added. “I learned a long time ago in college that no team wins every game. No baseball player gets a hit every time. If a player got a hit even forty percent of the time, they would almost certainly be inducted into the Hall of Fame. The same is true in business. You have to be self-aware, see your imperfections, and work on getting better every single day.”

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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