Most societies around the world view vulnerability as a weakness, and this viewpoint has unfortunately colored many different leadership styles. However, in the world of business leadership, vulnerability proves an asset rather than a liability. While people tend to associate vulnerability with uncertainty or timidity, in reality vulnerability leads to authenticity and inspiration. A vulnerable leader maintains an open and accepting position. While this leaves the individual open to criticism, it also fosters connection, creativity, and collaboration. These factors make vulnerability rather beneficial for business leaders.
The Authenticity That Comes with a Vulnerable Position
At the core of vulnerability is courage and authenticity. Demonstrating vulnerability comes with certain risks, which makes courage a necessary part of the equation. The risk involves showing one’s authentic self, which means putting values, beliefs, and mistakes out in the open. Furthermore, vulnerability entails revealing emotions in front of everyone. However, this authenticity also lays the foundation for real connection, which helps teams to thrive. An authentic leader is an accessible one who can in turn inspire employees. Through its ability to forge connections, vulnerability has become an important tool for business leaders.
Ironically, business leaders are often taught to hide their true selves so that they can project an image of authority and competence. This image falls in line with what people often consider to be true leadership. However, it is a false conception of what makes leaders truly effective. Projecting such an image can create walls that discourage true connection. While employees may look up to such a leader, they will not feel like they can relate to that person, which makes genuine communication difficult. On the other hand, research has shown that humans register a lack of authenticity subconsciously in a matter of questions, so leaders may implicitly destroy trust by projecting an image that is not authentic.
How Vulnerability Plays out among Business Leaders
Employees want to feel understood and valued more than they want an authoritative leader. Vulnerable leaders leave the door open for respect and empathy, which in turn leads to true understanding. A leader who is authentic maintains a strong sense of self, which makes it possible to remain grounded in personal core values while also recognizing and attending to the needs and wants of other people This strong sense of self also makes it possible to take criticism and incorporate feedback in a meaningful way. Leaders who embrace vulnerability are focused on achieving goals, but not singularly. These individuals are also driven to do what is right and become better people for the benefit of their followers.
Real leaders admit that they do not have all the answers, which is a vulnerable position for someone to take. However, admitting to personal limitations opens the conversation to other people and invites them to share their unique ideas and perspectives. The resulting conversation and collaboration can reveal unique and innovative solutions. The courage of vulnerable leaders often proves infectious and inspires other people to take calculated risks that could really pay off for an organization. The ability to inspire and connect is what makes vulnerable individuals such great leaders. Luckily, vulnerability is a trait that can be fostered in leaders who want to open themselves up to the people around them.
Examples of How Leaders Can Show Greater Vulnerability
The first step in embracing vulnerability is to keep your ego in check. When leaders simply sit and listen without trying to assert themselves or drive the conversation, amazing things can happen. Leaders who let go of their ego listen carefully to what their employees have to say and let people explore their ideas. Checking your ego takes practice and a fundamental shift in mindset. Leaders need to remember that it is not about them, but rather the people around them. Reminding themselves of this fact helps them to remain open and vulnerable. When leaders embrace vulnerability, it does not mean that they go around sharing all of their secrets. Instead, it involves putting your cards on the table and taking off the armor. Too often, leaders feel like they need to protect their employees rather than involving them in the solution.
One of the best examples of how vulnerability can lead to a stronger business is embodied by Starbucks. In 2007, the company was in the midst of its worst decline in history. When Howard Shultz returned to the helm of the company, he told his employees that Starbucks was on the verge of failure if something did not change. This transparency fostered connection with the company’s employees, who in turn worked hard to come up with ideas that eventually cemented the brand as one of the top coffee producers in the world. Another example is Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who started the discussion about dealing with grief in the workplace following the sudden and unexpected death of her husband. This conversation has helped to create support programs for employees in crisis and has averted potentially problematic situations.