Of all of the adjectives used to describe effective leadership, vulnerability is not one that comes to the forefront of most people’s minds. Communication, confidence, decisiveness, inspiring and strength, sure, but vulnerability?
Now more than ever, vulnerability in leadership is being viewed as one of the top traits in leaders worldwide, irrespective of industry.
We take a deep dive into vulnerability in leadership below with the help of leadership and recruitment industry experts.
What is Vulnerability?
Some leaders feel that vulnerability can often be conveyed as a weakness whereby you leave yourself open to being hurt emotionally or physically. You may become susceptible to defeat, or prone to be taken advantage of.
But the fact of the matter is, all humans are vulnerable in some way or form at some point in time. That is simply a part of human nature.
The fact that vulnerability affects us all at some point, is the very reason that bravely showcasing one’s vulnerability should be reframed as a strength. Especially when it comes to leadership, interpersonal skills and building authentic relationships.
An environment where vulnerability is not tolerated or looked down upon is a toxic environment.
How does Vulnerability Relate to Leadership?
In previous generations, leaders have been viewed as authoritarian figures who would never dream of revealing the slightest weakness to their subordinates.
However, with recent studies into mental health and productivity, coupled with the explosion of new digital skillsets and generational overlaps, the paradigm of leadership is quickly shifting into one where understanding and openness are far more valued traits.
Dr Brene Brown is a bestselling author, TED Talks speaker and Research Professor at the University of Houston who has spent over two decades analysing themes such as courage, empathy, shame, and vulnerability.
Dr Brown firmly believes that effective leadership encompasses vulnerability.
“Giving feedback receiving feedback, problem-solving, ethical decision making, these are all born out of vulnerability,” she explains.
“When we build cultures at work where there is zero tolerance-for vulnerability. Where perfectionism and armour are rewarded and necessary, you can’t have difficult conversations. They’re not productive.
“No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. It is that simple. If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.
“A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential.”
Vulnerability in leadership is the ability to admit what you do know, but also what you don’t know, and then trusting those that you manage to fill the void.
Leading with vulnerability is a concept that Thoughtexchange Director of People, Alex Chapple, is focusing on as part of her professional development.
“An interesting personal development tip that I've been focusing for myself on recently is vulnerability,” Chapple said.
“Leading with vulnerability and being able to say what you know and what you don't know, reaching out to teams to find out what they think about what’s going on and being willing to address what you hear as well as keeping an eye on what you're bringing to the conversation.”
What are the Benefits of Vulnerable Leadership?
Twelve associates of Forbes Communications Council recently explored the benefits of vulnerability as a leader, and why more managers and executives should embrace the notion.
- It makes you more relatable: For someone to be a true leader, the organisation needs to look up to them and be inspired. But it is equally critical for people to relate to the leader. Vulnerability makes leaders relatable and thus forms a stronger emotional connection.
- Drives trust: People trust authentic people. Without trust, employees don't stay at companies for long and customers do not remain loyal advocates.
- Demonstrates strength of character: Showing vulnerability and owning our experiences demonstrates strength of character and emotional intelligence, both of which are important qualities for leaders.
- Inspires creativity: Leaders who embrace their vulnerabilities - whether it’s making a mistake or struggling with the solution to a problem - inspire cultures of creativity and increased contribution.
- Transforms you into a modern leader: The greatest leaders open themselves up and are the kind of modern leaders that people love to work for and work with.
- Enables continued growth: Not only does vulnerability make you seem more human and approachable to your team, being vulnerable will allow you to grow in leaps and bounds.
- Encourages psychological safety: Teams that feel psychologically safe perform better than those that don’t.
- Connection through authenticity: Being a true leader doesn't require you to always be right. Leaders are human, as are the teams that work with them. By showing vulnerability, you'll truly connect with your teams because you'll be authentic.
- Enables shared ownership: When team members recognise that their own input and leadership are valued, it fosters a sense of shared ownership over the success of the organisation.
- Invites others to help: Leaders who come across as being always right and infallible run the risk of isolating themselves and losing touch with their workforce.
- Builds stronger teams: A vulnerable leader can admit to not having all of the answers and when they need help. This builds trust between you and your team and can create a powerful connection.
- Makes for great content: It can be scary to put yourself out on social media, but vulnerability converts. We are drawn to those who show their humanity. Give it a try!
How can your Leadership Include more Aspects of Vulnerability?
1. Set the tone. If you want your team to open up to you, you’ll have to take the lead and open up first. Set the standard with your vulnerability and strength of character. This will have a great effect on the people you manage as you are in the position of power. Showcasing your vulnerable side ultimately paves the way for open, honest communication.
2. Create a safe space for your team. Foster a culture of psychological safety whereby team members feel comfortable in their own skin and freely share ideas, provide feedback and contribute more positively overall to the organisation.
Harvard Business School Professor, Amy Edmundson, defines psychological safety as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. It is a shared belief held by members of a team that the team culture is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
3. Encourage one-on-one meetings. Make time for your team members. Not every team member is going to become immediately comfortable speaking up in front of the entire team. Regular one-on-one meetings with every individual creates a safe space for them to voice their concerns or share their ideas. From here, you can provide feedback, encourage them to share their ideas or deliver the idea on their behalf.
4. Self-reflection. Effective leadership is never stagnated, it is fluid and ever-evolving. Allow time to reflect on yourself, your leadership, your own vulnerabilities, and your team.
- What are you doing well?
- What can you do better at?
- How are my team performing?
- Are they happy and productive?
Vulnerability builds trust and elevates performance. Have the courage to be vulnerable and watch your team and organisation thrive.
Karina Guerra, Xref’s Group Marketing Director, explains,
"A big step to leading with vulnerability is when you are able to accept that it is okay to ask for help and be open about the areas where you need support.
Asking for help and seeking support means your business will see many benefits and new opportunities, including growth. Not everyone can have the same set of expertise, but leaning on others and coming together can help build your company.
“Leading with vulnerability is a journey that comes from the trust that you inspire in others when you take the time to show your real you.
"For me, leading with vulnerability means daring to be ourselves and show with pride our differences to the world.”
This can help build social connection amongst a team and wider business.