When it comes to vulnerability, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing but instead offering the most relevant pieces of yourself to others in an effort to foster connection
Historically, the term ‘vulnerability’ had been used in a single context: projecting or explaining a situation or an individual as a sign of weakness. Therefore, when mentioned in the context of leadership or leading with vulnerability, it was often misunderstood. That is, until now. Vulnerability is having a moment in the world of authentic leadership and is showing no signs of stopping.
Vulnerability evokes unease in many leaders because they perceive it as a need to reveal their shadow side. However, when it comes to vulnerability, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing but instead offering the most relevant pieces of yourself to others in an effort to foster connection. Vulnerability is not giving too much information or a laundry list of past failures. True vulnerability is more contained. Simply put, vulnerability needs boundaries.
It can be an internal tug of war: how vulnerable is too vulnerable? How much vulnerability is enough to establish a trusted connection? To find the perfect balance, ask yourself, what is my goal? What am I trying to do by sharing my human side with my colleagues? How will my vulnerability break down the invisible walls around me and my position?
When we start applying the principle wisely, vulnerability is no longer a weakness – in fact, it becomes a strength. It’s having the courage to say that we don’t know the answer, to acknowledge that we too make mistakes and that we aren’t perfect. When we show vulnerability, we signal that it is okay for everyone else to show who they really are that there is no need to hide. It invites others to share their mistakes and ask for help when they don’t know something. When leaders embrace imperfection by being vulnerable themselves, they empower people in their organisation to reciprocate. This creates a positive culture where new ideas can be generated, and people are encouraged to learn from their failures and experiment rather than sticking to the same old strategies and routines.
Admit to your limitations with the determination to improve upon them. This will encourage your colleagues to open up as well, and perhaps even inspire them to ask for help. Connection is fostered through a need: the need to not do things alone. When you channel your vulnerability to say, I need you and here is why, you make your colleagues feel valued.
For leaders who are wary about vulnerability, there are four steps you can take to truly lead with vulnerability, foster transparency and authenticity and create lasting connections.
1. Accept that mistakes are okay
Our egos train us to strive for an infallible image. No one enjoys making mistakes. Mistakes make us feel weak and inept. Usually, mistakes are followed by feelings of shame (and guilt) as we try to determine what we could have done differently. We need to learn to accept that mistakes are okay. Mistakes can be our greatest teachers. We do not have to lie or make excuses. The best thing we can do is own our faults in times of error. When we say, I’m sorry, I made a mistake, we become humble and vulnerable. Vulnerability opens us up. It allows us to be open to things such as teachable moments, self-awareness, and awareness of others. Vulnerability gives us the opportunity to be perfectly flawed and human. Vulnerability is one of the special things that can calm down a triggered ego and allows us to connect with others in a positive way.
Mistakes are gifts. They are the detours in life that help us see things we wouldn’t have normally seen if we were indeed, ‘perfect’.
2. Share your own mistakes and what you have learned from them
Once you establish your vulnerability boundaries, look for opportunities to share your own mistakes in context with your team. Make sure the vulnerable moment is timely, relevant, and in line with your goals. The key is to be genuine.
For example, let’s say you were assigned the task of bringing on a new vendor to your business. But you didn’t do your research and there was another vendor you could have selected that was not only better but would have saved the company money. This is a classic example of the importance of doing your research. You can share this anecdote with your team and even invite others to offer their own stories of a similar nature. By sharing, everyone learns they are not alone in their plight. A greater sense of security and trust will flourish. As a leader, you have to set the tone and invite the team to share.
Sometimes teams automatically assume their leader is infallible. Use any opportunity you can to remind your team that you are human, and you recognise your team is human too.
3. Be authentically empathetic
Even when you’re being truly vulnerable, you are going to feel negative emotions. These emotions may be directed at yourself or others. The first thing you need to do is remind yourself that you are not the emotion. Rather, the emotion is in you. This differentiation is also a helpful way to allow you to respond instead of reacting. Next, channel your empathy. That means quieting your bias, judgements, and negative emotions.
Empathy can pacify negative emotions instantly. Being empathetic so that your employees can see that you have been in the same position they are in, really helps people to soften and calm down. Saying, I know how you feel, or I have been there, is not enough. Those phrases have become overused and meaningless, if not patronising. When others are vulnerable, they want to be heard. That is why it is paramount to really listen and respond in a genuine way.
4. Be open to the ideas and responses of others
Being open to the ideas of others and admitting, that even though you are the leader, you do not know everything is okay. Not having all the answers makes you relatable and more genuine.
During team meetings, your colleagues may offer solutions and insights. Encourage this behaviour. When you are open to the ideas and responses of others, you generate connections and increase the self-worth and value of your colleagues.
These four points are the tip of the vulnerability iceberg. There are many more different strategies you can deploy to lead with vulnerability and authenticity. Start with these four and don’t be afraid to harness the strength and power vulnerability has to offer.
Salman Raza is the author of Life’s Non-Conformities: An Auditor’s Tale of Practical Application of Social, Emotional & Behavioral Strategies, out now, priced £18.99 available on salmanraza.net and Amazon.