Showing Vulnerability as a Leader: Strength or Weakness?


Growing up, were you taught to view vulnerability as a strength or a weakness? Most of us were taught that it is a weakness, but as more research on vulnerability has emerged over the past few years, it turns out we may have been taught incorrectly. In fact, people tend to view the best leaders as the ones who show vulnerability.

Vulnerable leaders admit mistakes, are open to feedback, and talk with their teams about their struggles. Direct reports may feel closer to a leader who displays vulnerability, prompting them to communicate more. This role modeling of vulnerability may spread to team members, resulting in more team cohesion.

Though we may have been taught to project a strong image and appear impervious, most people can detect inauthenticity and will struggle to connect with someone who appears distant. At the very root of being human is the desire to connect with others, so while we may have originally thought we needed to be viewed as stoic, unaffected leaders, we now know that our employees seek belongingness.

Engaged employees often describe those they work with as family—this is the essence of having meaningful bonds. Being a vulnerable leader allows for new lines of communication that may help you discover issues more quickly. For example, if a leader talks about “lessons learned” or mistakes on a recent project, this sends a message to employees that it is acceptable to share their mistakes or struggles on tasks. Taking this a step further, if the leader is accepting and not looking to reprimand the employee when they find out about mistakes, the leader has further created a team culture of sharing for learning purposes, not hiding errors to avoid being punished.

Learning to be vulnerable can be difficult, especially if you are unlearning years of behavior where admitting you didn’t have all the answers wasn’t okay or it was important to “fake it until you make it.” Adding a few techniques to your leadership repertoire can begin to make a difference.

Here are some ways to increase vulnerability:

  • At your next staff meeting, share a mistake you made in the last week and what lessons you learned during the process.
  • When sharing a new idea, present it in a way that invites people to provide feedback. Use statements such as “I have this idea, but I want you to poke holes in it to make it better” or “I am trying this idea out, and I would appreciate critical feedback on it.”
  • If an employee is struggling to develop a certain skill, share with him or her how you learned a similar skill and some of the roadblocks you experienced.
  • When you want team collaboration or idea sharing on a subject, start the brainstorming session with “I don’t know the answer to this. I need your help. Let’s figure it out together.”

Although it may seem counter intuitive to be a leader who admits mistakes and asks for help, this is the foundation on which honest, meaningful work relationships can form. Employees will feel a greater sense of loyalty, and teams will feel respected for sharing their opinions.

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Danielle Crough, Interstates Director of Leadership & Organizational Development

Sources:
Brown, Brene. (2012). The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, & Courage
Brown, Brene. (2017). Braving the Wilderness
https://hbr.org/2014/12/what-bosses-gain-by-being-vulnerable
https://www.aat.org.uk/about-aat/press-releases/britains-workers-value-companionship-recognition-over-big-salary