The value of vulnerability and its role in inspiring trust, creating psychological safety, and fostering collaboration and engagement on your team has been underscored in recent years. But a naïve understanding of what it means to be vulnerable can impede your growth, limit your impact, and even blow up in your face.
When a senior VP in a manufacturing organization was promoted, his role substantially increased his accountability. He was nervous about making the leap. He had just learned about vulnerability and so bared his soul to his new team of leaders. In an opening address to his team, he said, “I want to do this job, but I’m scared and shaky and not quite sure I can come through for you. I’m going to need your help.” His candor backfired. He lost credibility and trust with the people who wanted and needed a confident leader to take charge. He was never able to regain the trust of his team and was soon removed from this position.
Let’s start with understanding what vulnerability isn’t. Vulnerability doesn’t mean being weak or submissive or indiscriminately exposing all your hidden fears and flaws. It’s not about falling apart when you need to be standing tall. It’s not about bringing all your insecurities, doubts, and worries to work with you. In short, it’s not about expecting your team to be your therapist.
Simply put, vulnerability is the courage to be yourself. It’s that simple, and it’s also that difficult. Vulnerability lies at the core of authentic leadership and understanding who you are as a person is at the core of vulnerability. Thus, the paradox of vulnerability. You must be real, and you must be stable.
Vulnerability is not a leadership technique or tool. It is a way of being in the world. Vulnerability means replacing “being professional by keeping a distance” with humanity, honesty, respect, and staying calm under pressure.
1. Sharing your values, dreams, and intentions in your work as a leader. I remember a senior leader in the agriculture sector who began her opening speech to her team with slides of her parents farming in Saskatchewan and the values she learned about growing up on the farm. She then shared her vision for this division. Within five minutes she had inspired an entire team of leaders to be completely aligned with her.
2. Being curious and self-aware. Vulnerability means being comfortable with yourself, so you aren’t driven by approval ratings or a need to please. It means being open to learn about yourself and how your behavior impacts others. It means being open to seeing your blind spots, letting go of all blame, and being committed to grow as a leader and as a person. Being vulnerable means you don’t seek power as a way of proving your worth. You know that your worth and security come from within.
3. Having a good support system away from your work. The strength and clarity of vulnerability come from having a place away from work to bring your fears, doubts, and insecurities, so you are free to be human when you get to work. A good support system of confidants, coaches, or therapists provides perspective and a place to fall apart and get put back together again so you can return to your team with civility, compassion, and clarity.
4. Encouraging others. Because vulnerable leaders are comfortable with themselves, they are not threatened by the growth of others. They are open about their appreciation of others. They are humble enough to know they aren’t the smartest person in the room and are wise enough to extract the strength of the members of their team. They are committed to helping people become the best version of themselves.