In my many years of corporate training and working with management teams, I’ve always subscribed to the importance of leaders being vulnerable with their subordinates. This concept is emphasised in most of the Western teaching material when it comes to leadership—John Maxwell speaks about it, Stephen Covey speaks about it, and Patrick Lencioni even wrote a whole book specifically on the topic, called Getting Naked. Brené Brown’s talk “The Power of Vulnerability” is currently ranked one of the 10 most popular TEDx talks. These Western values of being open and vulnerable with staff are well-established, and they’re concepts that I’ve always taught to others.

More recently, I’ve had senior managers share with me that they don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable with employees here in Vietnam. It’s not that they’re particularly shy to open up, but more that they’ve noticed a pronounced difference in the local culture.

At a workshop on vulnerability and building trust that I taught in Hanoi a couple of months ago, an Australian CEO whose company had acquired operations in Thailand attended. He told us a story about his first experience addressing his new team. In his speech, he said that he was looking forward to achieving great results together in Thailand, even if he didn’t have all the answers ready for them yet. The response from his staff was one of shock. A lot of people wanted to speak with him about why he didn’t have the answers—he was the CEO!

For some context, I spoke with Christian Routin, an executive coach and cross-cultural trainer whose personal background lies in both Vietnam and France. This multi-culturalism gives him strong insights into the differences between Vietnamese and Western management styles. In his teaching, Christian identifies 14 key cultural differences. According to his perspective, the question of vulnerability relates to one of the biggest differences in management approaches—hierarchical versus egalitarian leadership.

There’s No Such Thing as One Size Fits All When it Comes to Leadership 

“In the West, we practise egalitarian flat management, while in Asia, there’s a power difference between the boss and the staff,” Christian explained. “The boss has all the power and the staff are powerless, and they accept that situation as normal. Bosses here give a very narrow scope of work to the staff, so they can control staff easily. In this system, micromanagement is both necessary and expected. So if I’m a good boss, and I’m telling people that I have a weakness, I’m destroying my power in front of my staff. I’m going down in flames, right there!”

Clearly this is different from the way things are done in Western countries, where CEOs are encouraged to see themselves as equal to their staff. Western leaders are at their strongest when they empower people, and, according to Christian, their staff are equally happy to receive that power thanks to the individualistic nature of Western culture. In this system, the staff are both allowed and even required to challenge the boss with ideas, suggestions, solutions, and innovations. A leader in this system is comfortable with being proved wrong, while in Vietnam, taking the blame is a very destabilising thing to do!

“In Vietnam, when you step into a workplace for the first time; when you do business with a person; or any form of transaction in Vietnam—the first thing you do is to build up a personal relationship”, says Christian. “That’s a prerequisite. If you miss that step, you think you’re doing business, you think you’re working, but you’re not. People don’t trust you, they don’t support you, they don’t even like you—and they won’t share critical information with you. That’s a big problem, because in the West, business is more transactional. This means that you don’t need to know each other inside out. You don’t need to be friends or like family to work together. It’s not the same in Vietnam.”

How to Bridge the Gap Between Relationship Building and Leading

If a CEO starts to open up to his or her teams and proclaims a weakness right away—without building up a relationship—local staff won’t understand what’s going on due to this basic cultural difference.

Before opening up about your vulnerabilities, you need to first open up about yourself—who you are, your personal background, where you went to school and even the age of your children. You then need to engage in relationship-building activities, such as going out to eat with the people in the business, the staff and key stakeholders. This establishes a connection on a personal level. Only then can a leader start to open up about their weaknesses, once that connection is there.

Once you have a good relationship with your direct reports, there’s a high level of trust and a feeling of family. You can then start being open with them about things that you are perhaps weak at or not so good at. Only then does vulnerability look less like exposing yourself to being attacked or harmed—and more like the sign of a humble and mature leader worthy of being followed!

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Tim Burrill
Membership Manager & Executive Assistant
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