The Benefits of Vulnerability

The traditional definition of vulnerability is to be capable of, or susceptible to being wounded or hurt; being open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc. Most people in business understand these definitions and avoid vulnerability at all costs. Nowhere does this have more impact than in leadership circles.

However, recent research in leadership has exposed many old ways of thinking as outdated, ineffective and damaging. With today’s emphasis on human relations, employee engagement and softer leadership skills, greater emphasis is being placed on interpersonal connection and consideration for people.

Why? Because we’ve learned that employee satisfaction is paramount to organizational success. People simply shut down or leave if they don’t feel appreciated. The focus is transitioning from leaders to employees, although this has yet to make deep inroads into every organization.

Autocratic leadership styles are yielding to democratic ones, where people are individualized and supported. Harsh, impersonal treatment is changing to accountable, considerate acts of empowerment. Cold, impenetrable leaders are learning humility and vulnerability.

Definitions are changing with the times, and these behaviors are recognized for their benefits— for employees and leaders alike. The transformations are not easy. It’s difficult to overcome engrained paradigms. But if leaders can do this, the rewards are unlimited.

Perhaps the most challenging soft skill many leaders still have trouble grasping is vulnerability.

False Notions of Vulnerability

The word vulnerability generates negative impressions for leaders because of past experiences of their own or people they know. Generally, vulnerable situations don’t go well, so leaders do what they can to avoid them. They see vulnerability as having their weaknesses or mistakes exposed, which leads to criticism of their abilities or character.

When leaders believe that criticism reflects negatively on them, a number of possible fears come to mind. Their worth in the organization feels devalued, which ultimately means that they are devalued. They sense they are appreciated less, trusted less, and likely not to be viewed as capable of handling challenges. In other words, their careers are handicapped. This can be a big blow to a leader’s world.

As Emma Seppälä describes in her 2014 article for HBR, What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable, vulnerability tends to be accepted as a weakness. Leaders can be seen as being unknowledgeable or incapable, unconfident, soft or ineffective. Typical scenarios of vulnerability for leaders include:

  • Promoting a new project that doesn’t succeed because of inaccurate assumptions.
  • Misjudging someone’s proposal and realizing the error.
  • Needing help from a colleague when the relationship is damaged or strained.
  • Trusting the unproven skills of a key team member on an important project.
  • Applying principles learned in a prior field that don’t really work in a new field.

The most successful leaders have learned that these kinds of seemingly vulnerable situations don’t need to portray weakness at all. Everyone makes mistakes, but it is a strong character that is willing to own up to them. Expressing need and being honest and up-front about mistakes reflects an inner strength that doesn’t rely on the approval of others, but rather confidence in oneself. Advances in soft leadership skills are overturning negative thinking about vulnerability and finding ways to make it a positive.

The Positive Side of Vulnerability

When leaders admit their mistakes and show that they want to learn from them, the negative aspects of vulnerability can be minimized. People see this as taking responsibility, being accountable or transparent. These are admirable traits that display relational skills. Employees want leaders who can relate with them and behave more like “regular people”. This dispenses with traditional pretenses of being better or more important, which are resented by subordinates.

Human connectedness is the new attribute that engages people and draws them to a leader. Admitting and apologizing for being wrong prompts a relational restoration that builds trust. Honesty and authenticity signify a leader who cares about relationships and the strength that they afford. Deeper relationships draw out the best in people, and this enhances attitudes, productivity and loyalty.

As Seppälä points out, people can sense what their leader is feeling, and this influences their response. When employees see their leader as genuine and willingly vulnerable they feel good about it, and respond favorably with admiration and respect. Pretenses of superiority or infallibility, which are old-school vulnerability missteps, often work against a leader causing damaged relationships and disunity.

A leader who is willing to be open and vulnerable shows courage. They prioritize team unity and effectiveness above personal image, choosing to sacrifice for everyone’s benefit. This is the image of a person receiving inner strength from their belief in themselves rather than being dependent on the opinions of others. People are open to being influenced by a leader with this kind of character and are often inspired to be more like them.

A leader who asks for feedback, help or advice can use vulnerability to an advantage. Leaders demonstrate they want to learn and be the best they can be by expressing need. Who doesn’t want to follow someone like that? Their drive for improvement is contagious. Everyone wants in on it.

Acquiring a Willingness to be Vulnerable

Most leaders find comfort with the knowledge that vulnerability is a skill that takes time to develop; after all, it is contrary to our human nature to protect and defend. When expressed in a constructive way, vulnerability is a leadership strength, and draws more respect than if you pretended not to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability can be demonstrated in unfortunate ways, which are equally damaging. Doing it for show draws attention to yourself, as David Williams asserts in The Best Leaders Are Vulnerable. This is a false humility designed to impress people with an overly-relational air, hoping to gain favor. Being humorously critical of yourself may be effective on occasion, but when done regularly its fakeness is detected.

Instead, be honest. Sincerely owning up to mistakes is the most effective way to show vulnerability. Doing this in a spirit of humility is very effective. A leader who accounts for their actions well enough to take the heat turns vulnerability to an advantage.

Asking someone for forgiveness can feel like an extremely vulnerable act, but its benefits can be great. Showing the desire to restore a relationship, and taking the lead, is an honorable, trustworthy behavior that draws people. Likewise, offering forgiveness to someone who’s hurt you doesn’t mean you are weak. It means you are above the discord and strong enough to initiate its repair.

Leaders resistant to expressing vulnerability are often concerned that they will be taken advantage of. Displaying genuine vulnerability will show you that this is not the case. It takes courage to head down this path, but it’s a journey that can enhance your leadership more than adopting any other trait.

A leader who identifies their weaknesses can develop the ability to reveal them in the proper setting and manner. The skills of a qualified leadership coach can be of great benefit in this area. Self-awareness leads to greater comfort in being transparent about your vulnerabilities. A keen focus on being relatable with your people lets you expand your comfort zone. Turn your vulnerabilities into strengths!

How to Avoid Leadership Drift

Business is an active, demanding endeavor. Only those who consistently apply themselves succeed. Organizations that thrive require leaders who actively dream, plan, engage, solve, pursue and network. It’s a lot of work, and there’s no finish line.

But no one can keep up the pace indefinitely. Every leader experiences profound peaks and valleys, seasons of being on track or feeling lost. This can be repeated throughout the career of even the most seasoned executives.

Organizations flourish when their leaders are in sync and on their game, and they flounder when their leaders drift off course. Many leaders find themselves off the path because they have gradually, unnoticeably, drifted there.

Leadership drift is increasingly responsible for management failure and turnover. Many leaders face forceful influences and events that detrimentally change them, diminishing their organizational influence and reputation. Without discernment and internal awareness, external factors can cause damage that isn’t recognized until it is severe.

Leaders benefit by applying a dual strategy: addressing the external factors to minimize their impact, and handling their responses to such factors, overcoming the personal issues that can lead to drifting. Most find the second to be much more difficult.

All leaders experience drift at some point in their careers, some of it minor and recoverable, some significant and troubling. The greatest danger is failing to recognize it and taking steps to reverse it. Prolonging a short stretch of drift can render it irreversible, leading to career and team failures.

Fortunately, leaders can take concrete steps to prevent irrevocable consequences. However, since drift is primarily an unconscious issue, leaders generally need a second set of eyes to recognize it and bring it to the forefront. Even when recognized, drift is a critical topic best mitigated through the helpful resources of a qualified leadership coach.

Signs and Symptoms

As the word implies, “drift” is a loss of direction or purposefulness. Any pattern of behavior that reduces leaders’ impact or influence is cause for concern. Leaders who have forgotten their core mission have drifted, explains Cornell University organizational-behavior professor Samuel Bacharach, PhD, in “How to Avoid Leadership Drift” (Inc.com, April 2016). Drifting manifests in a variety of ways, signaling that leaders have distanced themselves from their roles.

Drift can be linked to a loss of interest or control. Expressing apathy toward current issues or projects is a discernible sign, as is coasting on past accomplishments. Drifting leaders often concede their principles or work ethic, permitting situations they never would have tolerated earlier in their careers. Adopting a hands-off management style commonly indicates that a once-diligent leader has drifted.

Leaders who isolate themselves from colleagues or resist feedback may have succumbed to drift. Shutting down, saying or contributing little, and making fewer decisions are red flags.

Just as a boat slowly drifts from shore, leadership drift slowly progresses and may be observed only after a significant occurrence. When employees begin to notice behavioral changes and wonder what happened to their once-respected leader, whispers become conversations. It becomes clear that leadership drift has been going on for some time. Drifting leaders eventually cause their organizations to veer off course, with potentially devastating implications.

“…progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road…“

~ C.S. Lewis

Circumstances are not always under a leader’s control. But drifting, distancing yourself from your role and duties, is. It is a result of choices, made either consciously or not, intentionally or not, calmly or desperately. You may think that drifting was something done to you. But it is something you did to yourself.

Why Leaders Drift

All leaders endure impactful changes or trials. Troubling life events can profoundly affect one’s behavior, mindset or motivation, notes Brigette Tasha Hyacinth, MBA, in Purpose Driven Leadership: Building and Fostering Effective Teams (independently published, 2017).

Challenges often shuffle priorities and strain perspective on personal matters. A loss of a family member, marital crisis, health scare or financial calamity can turn a leader’s world upside down, and one’s focus can quickly blur. Leaders who lose their enthusiasm and determination find themselves drifting.

Alternatively, drift can follow a period of working too hard, for too long, and running on fumes. Burnout is a serious problem, leaving afflicted leaders with no gas left in the tank and no energy or desire to maintain the required pace. Self-preservation supersedes daily responsibilities and issues. Leaders who drift from exhaustion eventually become ineffective, and their role within the organization is compromised.

On the other end of the spectrum, drift may result from boredom. Leaders who are denied new challenges or goals will lose interest in, and enthusiasm for, their jobs. Bored leaders have no determination or satisfaction. There’s little motivation to apply themselves to their tasks. They drift from their responsibilities, abandoning any concerns, and look for ways to escape ever-increasing monotony.

Leaders burned in the past by setbacks or failures may build resistance to risk-taking. Their guard is always up, and they settle into their comfort zones. Coasting is perceived to be the safer route, reducing stress and posing little risk to job security (or so they erroneously believe). Leaders who aim for comfort are assuredly in drift mode, unlikely to move their organizations forward with new programs or products.

Leaders who have experienced rapid success or advancement tend to become self-absorbed. Pride and privilege dull their sense of responsibility, and they issue directives that benefit themselves. If they see the organization as a vehicle for personal gain, they and their values have dishonorably drifted. Their actions will ultimately derail their organizations’ efforts and their careers, and they’ll wonder where they went wrong.

Drift’s Damages

Drifting from one’s appointed responsibilities has consequences for leaders, their people and the organization. Initial signs often go unnoticed. It’s vitally important to spot them in time to prevent a prolonged drift that cripples the organization.

Leadership drift’s most immediate effects hit the operations level. Leaders who lose track of their purpose and discount critical duties cede control and oversight, causing a variety of setbacks: missed deadlines, ruined efficiencies, costly mistakes and poor financials. Problems may emerge slowly, but they can cascade rapidly.

Operational stumbles are often accompanied by damage to human capital. When the machinery begins to groan, so do people. Setbacks and challenges give rise to employee dissatisfaction, low morale and production deficits. Employee frustration compounds operational dysfunction, and the downward spiral continues.

Drifting leaders are likely to miss important tactical information concerning day-to-day happenings, which handicaps their decision-making abilities. When they make poor decisions and fail to perform due diligence, outcomes suffer—along with reputations.

Drifting leaders also miss opportunities. They forfeit their ability to make improvements, changes or corrections, especially when problems result from their lack of oversight. Missed opportunities tarnish leaders’ legacies. They fall behind in dynamic activities and are left out of the planning and developing processes, further limiting opportunities.

Leaders who develop a reputation for trailing behind soon fall out of favor, and career prospects grow dim. Drifting is a common cause of leadership reassignment, demotion or dismissal. In their shortsightedness, drifting leaders often blame their environment, team or upper management for their misfortune. A qualified leadership coach can help leaders grasp the internal reasons for drift.

Drift’s most unfortunate outcome is a loss of values, Hyacinth asserts. Conceding on excellence and accepting mediocrity lead to habitually cutting corners, justifying mistakes and lowering standards. The organization is ripe for failure, making victims of every employee.

Conquering Drift

Drifting leaders rarely have an accurate picture of what’s happening to (or inside) them, so the highest priority is a proper assessment by a trusted colleague, mentor or, optimally, a qualified leadership coach.

An honest evaluation offers observations, feedback and direction, allowing leaders to better grasp the reasons for drift. Coaches help them gain insight into its causes and develop strategies to cure it. Regular assessments are beneficial to tracking progress, tuning areas of difficulty and determining when the desired improvements are achieved.

When leaders understand drift’s underlying issues, they can reclaim the passion they once had for their jobs. They’ll remember what fueled the beginning of their careers and identify the moment when the shift toward drift occurred. They’ll take stock of what they value and reassess what they want to do. Reevaluating career goals allows them to put drift in perspective and reestablish their purpose.

Leaders must relearn some motivational basics:

  • We achieve satisfaction only by applying ourselves.
  • We fulfill our roles by serving and enhancing others, not ourselves.
  • Drift won’t keep us safe or preserve our positions; rather, it drives our decline.
  • We must catch and reverse any tendency to “check out” through continuous self-reflection and honesty.

Executive coaches have the tools to help leaders identify their susceptibilities and make corrections. Addressing problems early can help prevent full-blown drift.

Leaders must put drift in perspective by remembering who’s counting on them. If they chose the leadership track to help people, they must give them the tools required to succeed, reject mediocrity, encourage high performance and be present—each and every day, without exception.

Drift is a leader’s way of surrendering to dissatisfaction after sensing a battle loss. Leaders must fight the urge to withdraw, remain actively engaged and invested, and find the motivation to endure even the most challenging setbacks. Those who monitor their performance with an accountability system can successfully prevent, reverse and repair drift.