Vulnerability and leadership are not usually words or concepts that we put together. Most often we think of “good leaders” as strong and confident with unwavering conviction. Many of us have been told that if we want to be a good leader than we must never show weaknesses.
I believe that for a leader to inspire, motivate and engage those around them they need to be transparent, honest and vulnerable. These qualities enable trust, the development of healthy relationships and an openness to give things a go without fear of negative consequences.
I was working with a client last week who feared vulnerability and viewed it as a sign of weakness. They had built a strong wall around themselves to protect them from pain, ridicule or judgement and admitted that they very rarely allowed their emotions to be seen. The down side of this strategy was that they were struggling to fully connect and engage with their team.
Researcher Dr Brene Brown from the University Houston has been researching vulnerability for more than 10 years. Dr Brown defines vulnerability as engagement, passion and a willingness to “fail big.” “It’s about sharing stories with people in an appropriate context,” she says.
However, make no mistake, there are limits to the level of vulnerability I am talking about. Dr Brown states “Vulnerability without boundaries is desperation, its attention seeking.” (Check out Dr Brene Brown’s TED Talk)
Neither men nor women are particularly good at being vulnerable in their work as leaders. Men have been taught as boys that being strong means never crying and never acknowledging their feelings. And although women may have been taught that it was ok to show emotions when they were girls, they often shut down their vulnerability in an effort to fit into the often male dominated leadership environment.
It takes real strength and courage to be willing to be open and vulnerable.
Being vulnerable can feel scary and at times dangerous and unsafe. But, however unfamiliar the feelings may be they are certainly better than missing out on all the wild and exciting emotional experiences that life brings.
Leaders who are vulnerable are usually seen as authentic and more easily earn the trust and confidence of their teams. They are seen as open and approachable and create a safe place for the creation of connection and engagement. Ultimately vulnerability is an essential ingredient for the creation trust.
Keys to being more vulnerable
- Admit your own failures. We all make mistakes and the more willing and open we become to giving something a go… the more mistakes/failures we are likely to have. And that is a good thing. Too many leaders play it far too safe, afraid of getting something “wrong.” Be ok about making some mistakes. And by speaking to others about our mistakes, the more others will want to trust us and follow our lead.
- Ask for and receive help from others. Many leaders think that asking for or accepting help as a weakness or an acknowledgement of something they are not capable of. We cannot be experts in everything. Your team are the experts and the sum of the parts is always going to be stronger than the parts alone. Being the type of leader who is comfortable with asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength and an opportunity to empower others in an authentic way.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Or as a mentor of mine would say “Get the f*** over yourself.” Life is too short to take seriously all of the time. Have a laugh and have enough self-awareness to keep things in healthy perspective.
Showing vulnerability may seem counter-intuitive at first but is definitely a characteristic to cultivate if you are looking to become a more effective leader.
Which great leaders do you think utilise vulnerability well to create connection and ultimately trust?