Early in my leadership role at ACHIEVE, I had an experience that shaped my understanding of what it means to be a good leader. A new staff person made a mistake that cost our organization a few hundred dollars. Understandably, she was embarrassed and anxious about it. When she told my colleague (her boss) what had happened, my colleague’s response surprised me. He said, “Thank you so much for telling me. I’ll probably make a mistake by lunch time today. Just last week, I sent out a contract with the wrong price on it that cost us nearly a thousand dollars in lost revenue. It’s not a good feeling and I don’t want to do it again, so I’ve worked on improving my process so it doesn’t happen again. I know you’ll do the same. Thanks again for telling me.”
Why Leaders Should Model Vulnerability
I suspect this short conversation was as memorable and impactful for our new employee as it was for me. It highlighted the importance and power of vulnerability. I had always looked to my colleague as an example for what kind of leader I wanted to be, and although I already deeply respected him, this admission cemented my trust. It reiterated that he was someone I could speak openly with about my own mistakes and trust with my own struggles at work.
Seeing my colleague acknowledge his mistake also had a significant impact on my own understanding of leadership. For many years I had the idea that a leader was a kind of superhero – one that knew it all, was close to perfect, had endless reserves of energy, and did not make mistakes. Sadly, many of us have been trained to believe that the best leaders need a larger-than-life persona and an air of perfection. And we have come to believe that we should reveal only the good parts of ourselves, to always be poised and polished, and to look like we have it all together.
Vulnerability Creates Authenticity and Connection
Vulnerability is often avoided by leaders, especially if we buy in to the belief that it is a sign of weakness. However, this is not what being vulnerable as a leader entails. Brené Brown, a researcher who has spent the past two decades studying vulnerability, describes it as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”1 These elements are all present in leadership. In a leadership role, we are sometimes unsure how our message or direction will be received, we take calculated risks where the outcomes are not guaranteed to be successful, and our emotional responses are always being watched. Most leaders know that uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure are part of what we signed up for. However, some leaders cover up these elements by being cool and aloof and putting on an air of superiority. As a result, they are perceived as inauthentic – which is the exact opposite of vulnerability.
No one connects with someone who stands on a pedestal, doesn’t have any weaknesses, and never admits to making a mistake.
People are always looking for cues to see if they can relate and connect with those around them. No one connects with someone who stands on a pedestal, doesn’t have any weaknesses, and never admits to making a mistake. Consciously or unconsciously, we are always deciding if a person warrants our trust by asking internal questions like: Are they who they appear to be? Are they authentic? Are they honest? How we answer these questions helps us decide how vulnerable we will be with them and how much is safe to reveal.
Cultivate Trust Through Vulnerability
When we sense that someone is honest, authentic, and caring, we open ourselves up and come to trust them. Conversely, when we perceive someone as being inauthentic, we close off, retreat, and make sure we keep ourselves safe.
Many leaders I speak with feel disconnected, even with their own leadership team. We have often heard that it’s lonely at the top. I believe a lack of vulnerability contributes to the feeling of isolation leaders often experience as they try to maintain an image of infallibility and perfection. They keep their struggles to themselves, feel poorly about mistakes, and expend energy trying to play the part of the competent leader. Ultimately this leads to a lack of connection and sense of loneliness.
Vulnerability Strengthens Relationships Among Staff and Leaders
This same principle of vulnerability leading to connection and trust holds true for the relationship between leaders and staff as well. Staff are watching and waiting for us to show that we are human, just like them. As leaders, it is our responsibility to model vulnerability. When we do, we build trust, which in turn creates the safety needed for our staff to be vulnerable themselves.
When leaders are vulnerable with staff and openly speak about mistakes, they create an atmosphere where honest conversations can take place and we can learn from and fix mistakes quickly. In building an environment where open conversations happen, we also need to prepare ourselves for the fact that some of these conversations will be uncomfortable.
In building an environment where open conversations happen, we also need to prepare ourselves for the fact that some of these conversations will be uncomfortable.
Respond With Care When Staff Are Vulnerable With You
When we do hear unsettling information from staff, such as something they are struggling with or a mistake they made, we should recognize that they are being vulnerable and demonstrating their trust in us. How we respond will determine whether they continue to be open and honest with us, or whether they close off.
Vulnerability allows us to have honest and even difficult conversations that deepen our human connection. By embracing vulnerability, leaders and those we supervise are liberated from the need to exert unnecessary energy trying to maintain an unrealistic image. Instead, we can invest our efforts into building strong relationships and learning from our mistakes, which allows us to do good work together – and this is what ultimately fuels organizational performance.
By embracing vulnerability, leaders and those we supervise are liberated from the need to exert unnecessary energy trying to maintain an unrealistic image.
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