Vulnerable Leaders Are the Strongest in the Business

What relocating my team from Russia taught me about leadership, people and marketing

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It was the most traumatic and emotional experience of my life. As the rumors swirled last January insinuating Russia could invade Ukraine, I and many others thought they were just that—rumors. Media hype to fulfill global news coverage holes. This wasn’t going to happen. There was no way this could happen. My birthday was in February. It should have been a time of celebration with loved ones, but fear and uncertainty were set to erupt.

“It started.” The two frightful words my boyfriend told me at 6 a.m. It left me unable to comprehend anything else. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday—the days were overlapping. I cried and had a lingering migraine. I frantically tried to check in with my team. 

It was Monday. I washed my face with cold water and said, “OK. We’re going to work through this.” Then I packed my bags, not knowing if or when I would ever be back to the place I was born, grew up and called home for over 30 years. I still haven’t been back since. Europe was quickly closing its airspace and borders to Russians. We realized we had to move quickly, or it would be too late.

Planning such a traumatic and difficult evacuation—moving quickly through war, forced evacuation and business as usual—we never lost sight of the fact that we are working with human beings. What we were about to do would completely change our team’s lives around in one day—communication and empathy became crucial.

Trust propelled us

Once war was imminent, we were overwhelmed by the obstacles that lay ahead. Worrying about the welfare of our families and friends, banks closing, fears of enlistment—the chaos sunk in. Working in tech, there was no telling if the war would limit access to the internet, email or social media, which were crucial for our day-to-day operations. 

In those moments of uncertainty, one thing was clear: It was critical for my team to know their safety wouldn’t be in further jeopardy. Data has shown that only one in three employees trusts their leaders, which paints quite a negative picture. I may have been unprepared, but I had the trust of my team, which allowed us to work together in a highly stressful situation and achieve a successful outcome with little impact to our work and deliverables. 

The team had developed trust given past proof of delivering on promises and demonstrating empathy in key moments. In this time of crisis, we decided investing in our people was the only goal. Money was not going to be an obstacle; profit-making and bookkeeping was not a consideration. As such, we did not have a specific budget but focused on getting everyone to safety as quickly as possible while making sure we were relocating to a place that was comfortable and welcoming.

Options were becoming more and more limited by the hour. We consulted with the best legal and immigration experts to act swiftly and decisively. We decided that Dubai was the best option in the short term while we looked for another longer-term option. Why Dubai? We determined the city was accepting of Russians, multicultural and relatively open when it came to visas. While it was not the cheapest option, it was the quickest and safest for the time being. We organized all travel, airfare and accommodations and contracted a third-party relocation group that would help ensure paperwork was fast-tracked and that we had expert advice on next steps.

Part of our team then spent a few weeks in Dubai but did not feel comfortable settling there long term for cultural and practical reasons. We decided that going back to Europe would be best for us. After looking at our options, which included Portugal, Serbia and Cyprus, we opted for the latter. Once again, we took care of all airfare, healthcare, visas and housing and rented an office on the Mediterranean island. Our team has been living in Cyprus for a year now, and we have slowly been repatriating our Russian team at their own cadence based on their personal needs.

A new understanding of connection

When I reflect on my own experience, I find that empathy and compassion were at the core of my ability to connect with my team—vulnerability was never a sign of weakness. We were all going through a difficult situation together, and while I focused on keeping my cool when communicating, I did share with my team how I was feeling: scared, excited, determined, confused. We were going through it together.

Vulnerability, in particular, has been characterized as a negative leadership trait. Leaders are supposed to be strong, and being vulnerable opens a leader to being perceived as weak or tested. I know this to be false, as I have seen vulnerability and empathy go hand in hand. I view my ability to empathize with my team as a personal strength, and as an important tool to be used by leaders to connect and build trust. During the height of our difficult journey, this trust was at the root of our successful outcome.

Authenticity is another key element to building trust—something 88% of consumers say they value. But less than half of marketers actually believe their brand messaging has a significant impact. This is a visible disconnect full of missed opportunities. If we want to enhance loyalty, retention and acquisition among customers and employees alike, we need to invest in understanding their values and developing strategies that allow us to live and evolve alongside them. That ultimately builds trust, which is at the heart of buying decisions.

For any brand, or anyone, that wants to be a leader today, it’s important to understand that the traditional rules we used to live by are outdated. The path to establishing trust among key stakeholders—including employees and consumers—are critically important. Know your value, tap into your emotional intelligence and embrace a certain vulnerability to heighten that connection of trust.