Why vulnerability is the key to strong leadership with Adam King

with Adam King. Amazon Japan

Thought Leadership

Being a strong leader requires a level of vulnerability. However in many cultures and organisations, vulnerability isn’t actually encouraged.

As a 21 year old, Adam King bought a one way ticket to Japan, never imagining that he’d still be there 21 years later. Adam King is a Senior Manager at Amazon Japan, looking after executive development across the Operations business worldwide.   

Both personally and professionally, Adam has embraced vulnerability to build trust, deep connections, and a successful career centred around people related work. 

In this episode of Humanity Works we spoke to Adam about what it’s been like to build a career in a country where you don’t speak the language and are unfamiliar with the culture - and what kind of vulnerability is required to thrive in such an environment. 

If you’d prefer to listen to our conversation you can do so here: Apple Podcasts or Spotify

What’s the biggest cultural takeaway you’ve received from living in Japan for over two decades? 

[Adam:]  I could probably describe it in three simple words: trust, acceptance and vulnerability. And they all go together in that if you can’t accept yourself, or your differences, or your own shortcomings, then you can’t accept anybody else. If you can’t accept anybody else then they aren’t going to accept you - and you need acceptance in order to gain trust. 

In my opinion the reason it’s difficult for people to accept others or trust others is because they can’t be vulnerable in front of other people. And my whole time in Japan has been about being vulnerable in front of other people. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t understand the culture, I didn’t understand the norms of operating in their society.    

What interested you about working in People, Performance & Culture? 

[Adam:] There were a few instances where I had to be the bridge between different groups of people who had different beliefs, ideals and goals. And basically I found myself facilitating the conversations between these two groups of people to try and come to a successful resolution. It was during that process that I developed my ability to connect with people. I see myself now as not someone who is educating others but growing as a facilitator with other people. 

And so from leading those discussions I came to the realisation that I might be pretty good at it, so I decided to explore facilitating more. But it was never my ambition, it was something I just fell into. 

What commonalities have you found between doing business in a country like Japan and western countries?  

[Adam:] The importance of relationships. The Importance of trust. The importance of being vulnerable in front of others and with others. Because I think that’s the foundation of everything we do in business. You can be a superstar but you can’t do everything by yourself. So if you can’t build strong relationships there’s no scalability in the skill set that you have. 

“What people are looking for in relationships is no different whether you’re in the UK or Japan or the US, people are people.“

I didn’t understand what those building blocks were until I came out to Japan and realised the importance of relationships. 

A feeling of safety is key for creating space for vulnerability. Hearing about the vulnerability you’ve had to step into creating a life and career in Japan, makes me wonder about how you got there. 

Has it been because of the situations you’ve found yourself in or an outcome of the vulnerability you were forced to step into by putting yourself in an entirely different culture? 

[Adam:] I think it’s a combination of both of those aspects for me. So in a working environment that I’ve never experienced, in a country that I knew nothing about, I was unable to communicate with anyone who couldn’t speak English. I couldn’t read Japanese. I was in a position where I knew nothing and I knew no-one. So there’s that level of vulnerability where you just don’t know anything but you can’t do anything about that because there’s only one way that you’re going to learn. 

“It would have been easier for me to just get on a plane and go back home, but that wasn’t the kind of person that I was. So I embraced the fact that I didn’t know anything and then started to seek out the information that I needed to survive.”

In other societies or at home, showing someone you didn’t know something was never a good thing. You always had to be on the ball. You’re expected to know what you’re talking about. Saying to someone, ‘You know, I actually don’t know anything about this’ was never something that was openly supported, at least in my childhood. 

Do the men in Japan receive the same messages as men in Western cultures in terms of not showing vulnerability when you don’t know something? 

[Adam:] I think they receive some of the same messages but with a slightly different twist on it. For example in the US or the UK we’re expected to take the lead or raise our hands and share our opinions, but in Japan it’s the opposite. They’re expected to conform or suppress their ideas. You might have a great idea but because of the team dynamic you don’t share that idea. Or if you do, you don’t share your idea in an ostentatious way.  

How do we develop and nurture vulnerability within organisations with our leaders? 

[Adam:] That’s an extremely difficult question to answer. It’s difficult because in some organisations you almost have to have a persona where you know everything, where you’re the best, and people perceive you in that way. And if they perceive you in that way and  the results go favourably, then you get more recognition for that. 

It’s unusual for someone to step in front of their peers or their senior leaders and say, ‘Sorry, I don’t have the answers. I need to go away and figure it out.’ Even just saying that to someone who is in a more senior role is seen as a sign of weakness. And we can go in and say ‘there’s no such thing as a bad question’. But from my experience the reality is that’s not how most workplace environments are. So there’s still an underlying current of expectation that the higher up in the company you are the more you know.  

So having the courage to step back and pause, and then say, ‘Actually, I don’t know the answer or I need more information’, having a company that actually supports that level of vulnerability, I honestly don’t think we have that kind of mentality in most companies today. 

To hear more of Adam's insights on this episode of Humanity Works, listen here on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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