The Role of Vulnerability in Leadership

Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it's having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it's our greatest measure of courage.” Brene Brown. 

Missed Opportunities to Show Vulnerability

In an earlier blog post, I talked about not being compassionate with myself after my wife died over twenty years ago. Another related aspect is that throughout my wife, Kathy’s two-year battle with cancer, I never told anyone of our journey through her battle with a terminal disease. My rationale for keeping such a significant aspect of my personal life private was about my mis-guided sense of propriety. It had nothing to do with me trying to be strong. Regardless, by not sharing I missed a big opportunity to be vulnerable with my team and colleagues at work. A chance to foster and even enhance a human connection.

A long time ago, I was walking through our office and a group of employees were talking about the wonders of the Dollar Store. Gary, our front desk-receptionist, a truly kind and wonderful person, looked at me and with a smile said, “you wouldn’t know about that store, would you?” Apparently, Gary saw me as a Corporate Director and assumed that I had always been in a strong financial position. I smiled and chatted for a few minutes and moved on.

Given my perception that work and personal life were separate, I did not share that in college, my odd jobs included being a janitor, and many times I had trouble coming up with rent money. As I look back, by not sharing my humble beginnings, I missed a great chance to be vulnerable with my team. What I also didn’t realize at the time was that talking authentically about my life experiences would have created a connection and perhaps even trust. 

The Importance of Leaders Showing Vulnerability

If I were to ask you what comes first, trust or vulnerability? What would you say? Many of you would guess correctly that you have to be vulnerable to gain and engender trust, especially as a leader. Unfortunately, our culture labels skills like emotional intelligence, authenticity, genuine caring & regard for another as “soft skills”. In reality these are the crucial leadership skills that foster psychological safety where everyone believes they can be themselves without fear of reprisal.

The irony is that the more elevated your leadership position, the more vital authenticity and emotional intelligence become in your success. 

Some leaders believe that they have to appear strong all the time or be “perfect”. Either of these perspectives keep the leader from showing their true self and hence keep everyone at arms-length. After 30-years in leadership roles, I have learned that being me and allowing my teams and my colleagues to truly see me creates amazing human connections. Additionally, it helps me deliver exceptional business results with a thriving culture and dedicated employees.

I recently shared with my leadership team that my Mom was suffering from early onset dementia. I mentioned that it was very hard to see someone who had been so fiercely independent all her life be so helpless.

A few days later one of my managers came to me and in a very emotional state mentioned that she needed to reduce her hours for the next few months. Her son was struggling going back to school after a year of COVID induced home schooling. I told her to take whatever time she needed and that family always came first. She teared up and thanked me for being understanding. I am convinced that my being vulnerable helped her share her challenge and manage her life more effectively. 

Leader Vulnerability Encourages Innovation & Experimentation 

Something magical happens when leaders model vulnerability and authenticity! Their team members begin to feel comfortable being themselves at work. Their relationships with their peers improve as does their well-being. With the false layers of pretense and protection gone, employee innovation and experimentation start taking hold. Feeling psychological safety, employees feel inspired to do their best. Knowing that failure is an intrinsic part of the journey to success, they feel ready to be bold and try new things.

After being a leader for over twenty-five years, my perception of what makes a good leader continues to evolve. I do know that modeling authenticity and vulnerability are pre-requisites for anyone who wants to inspire people to do their best. This is because these attributes show our humanity and connect us all. 

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