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However, recent research in leadership has exposed many old ways of thinking as outdated, ineffective and damaging.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!