We all know people at work who are filled with so much ego that they take great pains to hide any hint of failure or weakness. No matter what happens, they always have the last word. Their strategy is the belief that any hint of vulnerability would cause others to see them as weak. According to research by Brene Brown, they could not be more mistaken. The reality is vulnerability is a leadership strength which engages and inspires.
Let’s define it first. Vulnerability is the willingness to show up and be seen, even when you cannot control the outcome. Vulnerability is the birthplace of so many great emotions such as joy, courage, empathy, gratitude, and engagement. To be vulnerable is to be courageous.
For most of my career, I have assumed that to lead, you needed to be all knowing. I began to realize the most inspiring leaders during my career have lead with vulnerability. I also started to adjust how I was leading teams and interacting with others. I began to be myself. I began to take risks. I began to talk about when I was uncomfortable and uncertain at work. Instead always pretending to be strong, I started admitting when I was frustrated, confused, and scared. And when I did, others responded with compassion and patience, and I became a more genuine leader and mentor. Suddenly, I began to have people coming to me for all sorts of advice. People wanted to brainstorm with me on their latest product idea. By showing my own vulnerability, I began to truly lead.
Let’s walk through some of the myths of vulnerability.
Myth #1: Vulnerability is Weakness.
When you think about people who are courageous, they are usually vulnerable. Some examples of courage include:
- The co-worker who spoke up at the leadership meeting and said what everyone was thinking.
- The leader who made the difficult, tough decision on restructuring and told his team about the challenges of making the decision and everyone could see the emotions on his face.
- The fabulous employee who tells his co-workers that he did not go to college.
- The team that worked on a project that failed, and did not enter into the blame game but instead reflected on what they learned through the failure.
- The employee who asked for help when they were unsure of how what was needed for the assignment/project.
- The leader who said “I don’t know.”
According to Brene Brown, “vulnerability is the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity.” “There can be zero innovation without vulnerability.” Vulnerability is strength and is required for creativity and innovation.
Myth #2: You Cannot Opt Out of Vulnerability.
Vulnerability is all about uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is a natural condition that we need to understand, and acknowledge. If we try to hide our vulnerability, we come across as inauthentic and out of touch. The leaders who pretend they are not vulnerable tend to be those who:
- Always need to have the last word
- Belittle others
- Do not ask for others opinions
- Never show emotion
- Never display any sense of gratitude
It’s the leaders that hide their vulnerability who do not inspire nor engage their employees.
Myth #3: Vulnerability Means Letting It All Hang Out.
We have all met people who are ‘over-sharers.’ I once had a colleague who spent 50% of her time while in the office talking about her children. It’s not that I don’t want to hear about her children, but enough is enough. This is not vulnerability nor courage. This is basic attention-seeking.
The question to ask yourself when it comes to sharing candid information that leaves you vulnerable…..have the people you are sharing with earned the right to hear and know this information? For example, if you have a co-worker who is a bit of a bully and using every excuse in the book to belittle others so he can get ahead. I would probably not share key things with him. As a leader, if there are significant strategy challenges that the team is working through, they may not immediately share these issues with the entire organization. Telling the entire company that things are ‘going to hell in a handbasket and we have no idea what to do yet’ may not be the right thing to share.
Myth #4: I Can Go It Alone.
An organization is essentially a village. Every project requires more than one person. The reality is we can never ‘go it alone’ when it comes to leading and inspiring teams. When we lift people up by asking for their opinions, ideas, or thoughts, we are expressing our vulnerability and courage.
When we realize that we are vulnerable and that this vulnerability is a form of courage, we start to show up as our authentic, vulnerable self. I challenge each of us, myself included, to take one step each day to express our vulnerability as leaders, employees, and human beings.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.