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The soft stuff is the hard stuff: Leaders must show vulnerability in uncertain times

December 5, 2021, 2:05 PM UTC
Workplace challenges and personal tragedies caused by the COVID pandemic have redefined leadership.
YURI CORTEZ - Getty Images

What makes a great leader? It’s a question I constantly ask myself and my team.  Before this year, I thought I knew the answer.  

At Unilever, we often speak about the outer game of leadership–being consumer-centered, understanding our business, and unlocking the power of our people–and the inner game, which encompasses a sense of purpose and service, personal mastery, and learning agility. Leaders who are confident in their inner game are on a constant quest for knowledge, encouraging those who follow them to make learning a lifelong process too. They are emotionally very intelligent, compassionate, curious, and able to empathize with the struggles of others. 

The pandemic didn’t change any of that. But it did broaden the job description of leaders worldwide, demanding an additional ability to reassure and get the best out of their teams in an uncertain world: vulnerability. 

For the first time, leaders didn’t have all the answers. With governments instructing people to work from home, I, like many leaders across the world, had to admit to my team that I was figuring things out as they unfolded. We needed to arrange tests for staff, mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our 150,000-strong workforce (one in four of whom have had COVID-19) and in some cases, work with bereaved families. Being vulnerable as a leader became a fundamental part of my role.

I was due to share our new hybrid working approach at our regular company-wide virtual townhall when I received the news that my mother had been hospitalized with COVID. 

I am a person who strives to always be composed and well-prepared, but I felt myself wobble and had to fight back tears. I couldn’t speak easily and was forced to be vulnerable with the thousands of colleagues on the call, informing them of the situation and that I wasn’t feeling my best. After the call, I flew to India to be with my mother, but she subsequently lost her 13-day battle and passed away. 

Living and sharing grief

Can you ever truly get over the grief of losing a parent? Throughout these past few months, I’ve always felt a moment from tears. My mother was my inspiration and my moral guide. She was kind and compassionate, with a generous heart and unconditional support for her family. But I needed to come to terms with what had happened and so thought about how I would share my loss with the people who know me. 

I regularly share the challenges I face with my LinkedIn followers, as well as the entire 150,000-strong Unilever organization, with the aim of modeling that learning should be a lifelong process. However, before my mother’s passing, I hadn’t shared anything quite so personal. Maybe this reflected the predominantly male-dominated environments I have worked in most of my professional life. I tended to avoid discussing childcare issues or challenges at home in case male colleagues questioned my ability to give everything to the role. 

Yet I felt compelled to share something about the woman who had shaped so much of who I am, who I had spoken to every morning of my life. If we only share our best moments on social platforms, we don’t convey an authentic version of ourselves or empower others with the confidence to discuss challenges in their own lives.

So I wrote a post about my struggles with grief, and was overwhelmed by the messages of love and support which followed. Friends and colleagues wrote to me about the issues they were working through. I was one of the millions to have suffered loss during the pandemic. Many who reached out to me had also lost parents or loved ones and were able to relate to the experience I described. 

I realized the most effective way for leaders to bring a sense of purpose, service, compassion, and empathy into the workplace is to be transparent about the challenges in their own lives.

The power of vulnerability

In showing this vulnerable side, leaders can instill a culture of psychological safety in their organizations. By showing our own vulnerabilities and being transparent, we create a culture where people feel trusted, safe and secure. During a recent conversation with Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School, we defined leadership as the art of enabling others to achieve greatness. Key business drivers–like innovation, idea generation, and knowledge sharing–thrive when people feel psychologically safe to ask questions, debate vigorously, and commit themselves to continuous learning.

In psychologically safe workplace cultures, people aren’t motivated by fear. Instead, a culture of fear is replaced by more powerful practices like encouraging employee participation and questions, building trust, and rewarding and recognizing failure. We know the business case for diversity of thought, but if you employ diverse voices who don’t feel safe to speak up when they have a great idea, the value of diversity is lost. 

While reflecting on my mother’s life, I also thought about what comes next. How can I continue her legacy? How can I live my purpose as a human being, while encouraging others to live theirs?

People make a real difference to the world around them when they care deeply about things. Research from LSE found people who are living their purpose are 25% more likely to say they are inspired to go the extra mile in their job. It’s the reason why at Unilever, we’re committed to putting all employees through “purpose workshops”, to help them understand what drives them and what they are passionate about.

The soft stuff is the hard stuff. Don’t be afraid to show your human side as a leader. In turn, this will drive greater humanity in the world and create fairer, better environments in which to live and work.

Leena Nair is the chief human resources officer at Unilever.

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