Recently, we had a moment in a creative meeting. A team member opened up about his struggles with mental health throughout his career. When he finished, there was a long pause. The project we were discussing was about mental health. Nevertheless, this level of vulnerability was unexpected in a professional setting.
But it shouldn’t be.
Encouraging everyone at minds + assembly to bring their whole selves to work, to be as open and vulnerable as they want to be, has been an important detail of our leadership style since the day we created our agency.
I was humbled by this fearless show of personal vulnerability. I felt a wave of gratitude that he felt comfortable revealing something so personal with us all. I was happy that he’d gotten to a point in his life where he felt well. I also felt a surge of pride that he was leading with such openness and authenticity.
There are some leaders who believe they must lead through fear. To be a true leader you should never show weakness or flaw.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Here was such an incredible show of vulnerability—and I’ve never seen someone look stronger.
Vulnerability Builds a Better Business
I’ve worked in many places – large and small organizations – where success depended on avoiding mistakes, transparency, and vulnerability at all costs.
When Joelle Friedland, Ben Ingersoll, and I founded minds + assembly, we envisioned an agency where the opposite was true, where people could proudly be themselves. So, we made a business decision to operate on love. I know there are many who would cringe at hearing that, but embracing this idea was a great human decision and an even better financial one.
We are a creative company. I want everyone who shares an idea, a design, a strategy, or an opinion to feel safe doing so. That’s how people grow professionally. It’s also how they grow personally. It’s our strong belief that the 2 are inextricably linked. Particularly since we all spend so much time together.
If you foster this environment, everyone will feel comfortable enough to take risks with their work. If people don’t take risks, we’ll never come across innovative or imaginative work.
Our financial and business success has been directly correlated to this. Openness leads to better thinking, better ideas, better strategies, and better creativity.
Take the team member who shared their experience of depression with us. We were working on a shoot for a medication that helps people with their mental illness, in what was supposed to be the bedroom of someone with depression. Our creative was able to offer direction such as, “this is what the room would feel like. This is what the piles of laundry would look like. Doing my laundry was the last thing I cared about”. Their ability to be open was directly linked to the quality and strength of the work we produced.
This was a very immediate example of how vulnerability is beneficial, but there are more nuanced, less obvious ways it helps bring out the best in people day-to-day.
If people can connect with what they do, because they’re able to bring their whole selves to work, what they can achieve will be so much more powerful.
How to Embrace Vulnerability as a Business
To create that environment, it has to come from the top.
A good place to start is with your company values and purpose. For example, we changed ours from “Be kind. Be fearless. Be good.” to “Be kind. Be fearless. Be you” because we believe being yourself is the foundation of creating your best work.
Of course, values are important, but to make a real difference, they must be lived by the leaders themselves. I’ve got to relate to my agency staff, and they have got to be able to relate to me. I need to show what I have been through, how it has made me stronger, and how that has made our agency stronger.
It would truly be sad if the people I worked with didn’t feel I would accept and welcome them for who they are.
There are too many professional environments where that is still the case though. Where many junior employees feel they must put in the hours, never show they are troubled, never show they are struggling, and to always, always produce their best work, no matter what.
I would have greatly benefited had my superiors shown a little humility. For them to say: “It’s ok, we are all human, we all have faults, and we can get through it, together.” The need for this has become even stronger these past few years. The world has been through a lot. People have been through a lot, no matter their profession.
Sometimes I think it’s as simple as taking someone for a coffee or a beer and talking about how life is going for them. I’ll see a world of difference in them after that. And often, in myself.
Openness started with us as founders, but it’s quickly spread throughout the entire organization. That’s what happened in that meeting. The person who opened up was a leader. That evening, they received a message from another team member, thanking them for sharing their story and for reminding them that they work in a place where they can live their true and authentic selves.
This more junior team member hoped one day they would be able to do the same for someone else. I hope they do because these are the leaders of tomorrow.