Vulnerability? Or virtue signaling?

Last week, I devoted my blog to the importance of demonstrating vulnerability as a leader. I must have psychic powers because this week, a CEO posted a crying selfie on LinkedIn, and it did not go well for him. At all. 

CEO Braden Wallake posted the photo, along with a lengthy missive about how he was upset that his poor business decisions led him to lay off employees. What did NOT follow was an actual acceptance of responsibility and accountability. Instead, it was all about his feelings. And how much it hurt him. At the same time, his laid-off employees are filing unemployment claims and facing the loss of their access to healthcare. This is not vulnerability. This is the transformation of one person’s feelings into a voyeuristic spectacle for all of LinkedIn to see. And that is why people blasted him. 

The post went viral, and this CEO was interviewed by multiple media outlets, including the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and Fox News. He went back to LinkedIn and posted about this, essentially “flexing” about his engagement. Then, other folks began posting about it, both admonishing LinkedIn users for criticizing the original poster, and admonishing the OP for the crying selfie, thereby boosting their own engagement.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with this whole thing. I am all for leaders being candid and owning their tough decisions. But what was the intended outcome of the original post? Was it to demonstrate his humanity? Was it to boost engagement? Was it to build his brand? We will never know. But what the OP did not do initially was use his LinkedIn platform to help the affected employees become re-employed. He only talked about how challenging this entire endeavor has been for HIM. At best, this was tone deaf. At worst, it comes across as self-indulgent. To make matters worse, the OP engaged extensively in the comments, defending his decision to execute the layoffs and to post the selfie. Any publicist or public relations pro will tell you that’s what not to do when you are in the middle of a controversy like this. You should shut your mouth and consider deleting your post. 

I think the main problem that people had with this post was that it felt disingenuous and performative. Although not as bad as the better.com CEO who fired 200 employees over a one-way Zoom call, Mr. Wallake’s post showed a lack of empathy, a crucial component of executive vulnerability. In fact, a few days after his original post, he posted that he and his fiancé had put an offer in on a new house while his laid-off employees were ostensibly scrambling to pay their rents and mortgages. 

This is a perfect example of What Not to Do. This is staged vulnerability. It’s using other people’s hardships and exploiting them to gain attention and engagement on social media. It’s cringe. Genuine vulnerability comes with empathy and accountability. Don’t make your employees’ layoffs about you by posting a crying selfie. Definitely not a good look.

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About the Author: AKDSEO