Is Vulnerability in Leadership Bullshit?

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I have been a student of leadership for over 30 years. In recent years there has been a lot of talk about the power of vulnerability in leadership. However, many leaders I work with are highly skeptical about this concept. 

I hear a lot of similar viewpoints. “Yeah, they say that is what they want in leadership, but then as soon as we show any signs of weakness, we get trampled!” Despite all the research supporting the power of vulnerability in leadership positions, there is still hesitation in demonstrating it from those at the top. When I started to lead in a business context, I was terrified to show any vulnerability. I believed my team would lose faith in me if I did not appear to have all the answers. 

It took a long time to unlearn that. But, if you are subordinated to a leader that purports to have all the answers, you should rethink your position. A quick Google search can unravel even the most bulletproof display of bravado. Nothing erodes faith and trust in leaders when they spew about things they do not know. 

Vulnerability in leadership also needs to be coupled with authenticity. Leaders who employ false vulnerability as a tactic are quickly found out. The incongruent nature of their being will quickly sour even the most loyal followers. 

There is a plethora of research on the topic if you need empirical data to support the need for vulnerability in our leaders. However, I am not a researcher, and I prefer to show you based on my experience as a business leader for over 25 years and, frankly, what I call common sense. So let’s talk about what I have seen.

Some of the benefits of vulnerability in leadership:

  1. Vulnerability fosters trust
    Leaders who bring vulnerability to the workplace allow themselves to be seen as natural, fallible people. Authenticity builds trust within teams as they can see their leaders are not putting up a false front and are willing to admit their shortcomings. That is why we have teams, isn’t it? To provide support and diversity of skills to fill in gaps.
  2. Vulnerability can lead to better communication.
    When we, as leaders, are open and honest about our thoughts and feelings, it encourages others to do the same. By modelling the way, we create a culture of open, direct communication that allows for a deeper understanding within a team. As a result, it fosters more effective collaboration.
  3. Vulnerability can create a sense of psychological safety.
    When leaders create an environment of psychological safety, it leads to innovation and experimentation. When a leader is willing to share their shortcomings, it allows team members to more readily take calculated risks, which can contribute to the organization’s growth.
  4. Vulnerability fosters connection
    When leaders demonstrate vulnerability, it can create a sense of belonging amongst the team. This feeling of connection makes a more cohesive team and is a fantastic recipe for preventing burnout and excessive stress amongst the team.
  5. Self-awareness is the foundation for leadership.
    There is a level of vulnerability required for us to see our shortcomings. With it, growth becomes more accessible. When we dare to drop the armour and honestly assess our abilities as well as our weaknesses, it allows us the choice to improve. With awareness comes choice. 

Now that we have discussed some of the benefits of vulnerability in leadership let’s talk about how to do it. It may seem a little counterintuitive to think there can be a wrong way to do vulnerability, but there most certainly is. I believe this makes people skeptical about the power of vulnerability. 

Vulnerability is not:

  • Standing in front of your team and saying, “I have no idea what I am doing.” even if you don’t. There is a way to admit your uncertainty without undermining your team’s confidence. 
  • Spewing out all of your personal problems in the workplace. Where appropriate, it may make sense to share some personal struggles if they impact how you show up in the workplace; however, your team is not your therapist. 
  • Owning everyone else’s mistakes and shortcomings
  • Sharing everything without any boundaries

What vulnerability should look like:

  • Sharing your thoughts, feelings and opinions even if it goes against the grain. Having the courage to say, “I may be wrong, but…” can lead to a raft of others nodding in agreement. So many times, we all think the same thing but are afraid to say it. 
  • Have the courage to challenge the process even when you are uncertain.
  • Seek genuine feedback from the team
  • Ask for help. I have seen many times when things went awry because a leader did not dare to ask for help from their team. 
  • Encourage vulnerability in others. Creating a culture of safety and openness leads to a more inclusive, and supportive workplace. 
  • Maintain accountability and appropriate boundaries. Vulnerability in leadership without accountability and boundaries is a recipe for disaster. 

The bottom line is that vulnerability in leadership can be a powerful tool that fosters authenticity and trust. It can inspire others to take risks, create a sense of belonging and lead to personal and professional growth. In addition, vulnerability in leadership builds strong relationships within the organization and a positive team dynamic when appropriately done.

Like any other leadership skill, vulnerability takes practice. Unfortunately, I still do not get it right every time, but I am willing to experiment and repeat it. 

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