The Culture Code: Why effective leadership is about vulnerability.

What does the word “vulnerability” make you think of?

I think of an aircraft carrier. 

Hear me out. In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle describes vulnerability not as a “touchy-feely” display of insecurities, but as a way of sending and receiving signals. According to Coyle, vulnerability is a channel for open and honest—and often mission-critical—communication.

Think of it as radio communication between an aircraft carrier and members of the fleet. The carrier has to send out constant beacons on its locations, speed, and conditions for landing. Pilots need to continually pay attention to and acknowledge receipt of those messages. And if either party encounters something that appears dangerous, unclear, or off in any way, the person on the other end needs to know, so aircraft can be rerouted.

The aircraft carrier can’t do what the people in the air do or see what they see. And vice versa. Only by working together can members of the fleet ensure things run smoothly and safely.

Our business runs on vulnerability.

The aircraft carrier metaphor can apply to practically any organization, including a business like ours. 

Here at Ruby, we currently have about a dozen major projects in the air, so to speak. Those projects are all highly interconnected to each other, as well as to our biggest project—our aircraft carrier. Every project needs to land on the aircraft carrier, one after another, in a specific order. If we don’t keep our channels of communication open, we run the risk of colliding into each other or letting a key initiative exhaust its fuel supply and spiral into the sea.

Vulnerability is what allows us to send and receive the information we need, when we need it. It’s how we stay tuned in to each other’s challenges, allowing us to offer support at a moment’s notice. Most importantly, it cultivates trust among the members of our team.

What does vulnerability look and sound like?

Communicating vulnerability doesn’t necessarily mean telling other people you’re scared, or anxious, or overwhelmed, or that you feel unqualified for your job. Those feelings may be one component of the message, but they aren’t the whole message.

Here are a few examples of vulnerability in action:

“I’m not sure I can handle this alone. Can you help me?”

“Have you ever done this before? I’m new at it and want to make sure I’m doing it right.”

“I’m worried we won’t be able to get this done in time. What are our other options?”

I’m sorry I said that. I can see how it hurt your feelings and I regret causing you pain.”

“What do you think about this? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.”

“I take full responsibility for that mistake. I was wrong.”

The four rules of vulnerability.

In The Culture Code, Coyle presents stories that highlight a few key rules of vulnerability: 

1. Define your path. Vulnerability should serve an objective. It should help us get from “here” to “there.” You won’t know where you’re going unless you chart your path first.

2. You can’t prevent mistakes. We’re all human. Mistakes happen. Pretending they don’t doesn’t help anyone. Vulnerability allows us to look at those mistakes head-on and accept them, so we can actually do better next time.

3. Don’t consider yourself the smartest person in the room. A leader is measured by their team. As the people in charge, our job is to be the “roaming catalyst.” We should encourage ownership of purpose in everyone. Rubys routinely hear me say, “You guys are so smart. I want to hear how you think we should solve this problem. I am not qualified to do your job.” And I mean that! 

4. Don’t feel obligated to give brutally honest feedback. There’s a big difference between being open and sharing every thought that pops into your head. Consider your audience and consider the usefulness of your feedback before you share it. Remember: vulnerability requires empathy. If you’re not considering the other person’s feelings and giving them something of value, you’re just being cruel.

How can you encourage vulnerability in your organization?

Based on The Culture Code and my own executive leadership experience, here are a few ways you can embed vulnerability throughout your business:

  • Align your team with subtle nudges. Encourage your employees to share their questions, doubts, hopes, concerns. Ask them how they’re feeling about their work. Lead through example—let others in on why you made that decision, give gratitude to someone who helped you complete something you couldn’t have done alone.

  • Offer support. At Ruby, everyone has an SOS button. If you hit that button, someone will turn around and ask, “How can I help?” This allows us to take care of problems as soon as they come up. And beyond that, people who get help often pay it forward—they take the time to say, “I just had this problem, and here’s how it got solved, so perhaps this can help you, too.”
  • Provide the environment and tools your team needs to collaborate. In addition to giving people the encouragement and room to ask for support, your business should provide helpers with the tools and space they need. (I’ll explore this further in my next article about building safety, so stay tuned.)

  • Eliminate blockages to honest feedback. Like many businesses, we are constantly innovating here at Ruby. However, innovation has a tendency to result in scope creep, and every new idea or opportunity cannot be additive without changing something else. We know that innovation is only one element of our purpose, and not always the most important element. So, we empower our teams to ask, “How does this link to our purpose? What is the priority relative to our other projects?” If the priority is higher, we demote the other task. If the priority is lower, we put it in the queue, behind the current task. If the priority of both tasks is the same, we talk about what additional resources we need to complete both simultaneously. Being honest and getting everything out in the open not only feels good, but also allows us to execute faster and smarter.

  • Encourage new ideas—of all kinds. As CEO, I hold office hours in each of our facilities to meet with everyone. At these meetings, topics are wide open—everything is on the table, from what kinds of cereal we have available in the morning to whether we need to change our PTO policy to help single moms.

  • Look for the real problems. Teams get stuck for all kinds of reasons. It’s on the leader to offer up a suggestion or acknowledge a problem. Sometimes it’s a lack of clarity around solutions and roles. Other times, it’s because of harsh office lighting—a problem we ran into the other day. At a staff meeting, someone asked the question: “Does anyone think it’s really bright in here?” People immediately started chattering: “Oh yeah, definitely!” “Yes, it gives me headaches all the time!” So we ordered some blinds on the spot, but ran into another snag: facilities told us it would take weeks for the blinds to show up. And then someone noticed that the window looked to be about the size of a large Post-it Note—which there happened to be a stack of nearby. We grabbed a ladder and solved the problem in minutes.

  • Make it clear that it’s okay to fail. Not every problem can be solved as quickly as our lighting issue, and not every solution will end up working. That’s okay. Life is a learning experience. Acknowledge the problem, acknowledge why it didn’t work, and move on. Take ownership and don’t assign blame. When people know it’s all right to make mistakes, they tend to realize those mistakes faster and solve problems gracefully. And, again, failing and learning—together—is how trust is forged.

Clearly, there’s a lot to be said about vulnerability. If I had to summarize Coyle’s chapter on the topic, I would say that being a great owner, manager, or leader means having three priorities in mind:

  1. alignment 
  2. encouragement 
  3. problem-solving 

With those ingredients in place, you have what it takes to steer the aircraft carrier and guide your team to safety and success.

Speaking of safety and success, those are precisely the subjects we’ll look at in my third and final article in this blog series about The Culture Code.

Until then, be sure to join Ruby Reads, our monthly book club for small business owners. And if you missed part 1 in this series, which covers the role of purpose in company culture, you can read that here.

Stay well.



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