For a modern leader to be seen as competent in the workplace, it’s now important for us to view them as those who inspire psychological safety. We can take a cue or two on how and why leaders should express vulnerability from Arsenal gaffer, Mikel Arteta.
The Premier League’s youngest manager in its history, Mikel Arteta, has recently been getting all the right headlines for the upswing in fortunes for ex-PL heavyweights, Arsenal FC. In the now infamous All or Nothing documentary, we see the coach (as well as his sturdy management team) navigate through COVID restrictions, team morale issues and injury setbacks all in his bid to lead the league’s youngest Premier League team in their quest for a Champions League spot.
In a now viral clip, we see a pre-match pep talk from Mikel where he shares his experience of being saved by a “high performance team” of surgeons as a child.
During the team talk, he describes how the negative events surrounding the club took a physical toll on him but ultimately how encouraged he was to be deeply supported by his network of family, players and staff members within the club. Regardless if you are an Arsenal fan or otherwise, it is impossible to not be pulled into Arteta’s gravity within the locker room at that moment. It’s not a stretch to argue that he exemplifies why vulnerability should be seen as strength for leaders everywhere.
While the nature of our working world and the sporting one has their differences, the principles (or non-negotiables as Mikel would put it) for creating a young and successful team holds true for both. Most leaders are now dealing with a new generation of workers that have had to deal with similar circumstances as Arteta’s young guns; fighting tooth and nail for success and recognition in the midst of internal as well as external turmoil. Many employees, young and old, are knowingly or knowingly still recovering from the wounds caused by the COVID pandemic. Economic uncertainty, health concerns and environmental catastrophes are just some of the examples of the turmoil that are likely still prevalent in the minds of our current workforce.
Arteta’s more vulnerable approach to leadership could be one reason his team has been performing well lately. Research seems to affirm this theory, at least in the context of the workplace. A survey of 12,000 employees by Catalyst found that employees are more willing to go the extra mile when their manager is open and vulnerable. The question then persists; how are leaders who express vulnerability able to make such an impact in their organisations?
Mikel’s approach of expressing vulnerability in his leadership, as seen through his team talks, highlights the work of psychologist Dr. Brené Brown on vulnerability and leadership. In her work, she emphasises how the best leaders use their vulnerability to create work environments that inspire psychological safety. The job of a leader, in her view, is to protect employees from harm and promote a culture that motivates them to safely push through discomfort that then allows them to grow professionally.
In essence, psychological safety refers to a leaders ability to allow it’s employees to express themselves safely – so long as they mean well. Psychological safety is needed to form a safe space for employees to have difficult and emotional conversations. In uncomfortable and stressful periods, leaders such as Arteta lean in on their empathy and honesty to create a safe space for his players. In a workplace context, if a leader is having a tough time during a conference call and isn’t aligned with his team; he might say “I’m not in a good mood today and can’t cope with this currently. Could we try this again tomorrow?”
By creating a workspace that prioritises psychological safety, leaders initiate a snowball effect that positively affects the organisation as a whole. Most importantly, it inspires a sense of courage in the workplace. While skills and concentrated effort can definitely help to take an employee to a certain level in their career, the courage that stems from being vulnerable allows them to take their performance to a higher level. In Mikel Arteta’s case, his vulnerability gave him the courage to put his own managerial reputation and the club’s fortune on the line by assembling the youngest team in the Premier League to face off against the world’s best teams.
Leaders who simply fail to acknowledge their responsibility to create such environments lose out on the ability to engage deeply and encourage their employees’ growth. And as such, the closed-off leader loses the opportunity to take greater risks that might be better for the organisation in the long-run. And when such a leader does eventually decide to take such risks, it comes at the cost of the emotional well-being of its employees. Thus when a leader sees emotions as a weakness in the workplace, or lacks the empathy to navigate difficult emotions, closing the door on building trust. Subsequently, it then promotes a sense of disengagement with work. And as the snowball effect previously suggests, a closed-off leader thus negatively affects the organisation’s performance as a whole.
Based on Dr. Brené Brown’s findings and Arteta’s approach, vulnerable leadership looks like;
- Being courageous to acknowledge the emotions that a leader themself or their team might experience and harnessing that courage to good use.
- Cultivating a safe space that encourages employees to express themselves if they mean well
- Inspiring trust as well as the willingness to act charitably through a leader’s own actions.
Dr Brené Brown’s research suggests for modern leaders to be successful, they must dismantle their emotional armor. An emotional armor, one that relies on perfectionism and other tactics to avoid vulnerability ultimately fails to inspire any real sense of courage or trust. Both are needed to make bold decisions within organisations in tough times. Courage and trust also carries into building a team that cares for each other.
We too must play our part in dismantling our misconceptions of leaders being a bulletproof, battle-hardened “Spock.” Instead, we need to re-define powerful leaders as those who create psychologically safe work environments in their organisations. As Mikel Arteta leads the way for a brighter, trophy-laden future for his young Arsenal team through his vulnerable leadership, more leaders in the workplace would be wise to follow in his footsteps too.