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Vulnerability in Leadership

Think of some of the important characteristics you have come to associate with leaders; is vulnerability one of them? Maybe not, especially in a culture that has upheld the image of leaders as self-reliant and somewhat detached. This image is gradually changing to include vulnerability, transparency, and empathy, to name a few. So, why are these coming more to the forefront now?

Brene Brown, bestselling author and research professor, has put a spotlight on vulnerability through her research, writing, and podcasts. She defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Brown links courage and vulnerability, which she describes as "having the courage to show up when you can't control the outcome."

When added to other leadership attributes, this quality catapults leaders to the next level. Without putting themselves “on the line” and exposing parts of themselves that are usually tucked away, they cannot advance productivity or gain trust in the workplace. A mindset shift toward vulnerability involves some possible uncharted practices by leaders.

Admitting when you do not know something

Just because you are a leader does not mean that you are expected to know everything. Accept this, admit it to yourself, ask for help, and carry on. Also, admit to others when you don’t have the answer. You will win their respect and their trust more than if you pretend you have everything figured out when you actually don’t. Others see people who are open about not having all the answers as human and can better relate to them. Sometimes it means that leaders are not put on a pedestal, and that is okay.

Being honest with yourself and with your team makes a huge difference in trusting leaders. If you are learning new things or adjusting to new processes, be open about it.

Modeling openness

To encourage employees to be open in the workplace, leaders need to open up first and model this communication style. Leaders, being in a position of power, can influence the tone of communication in the team. They don’t need to bare their souls or divulge personal matters, but they can share challenges they face, as well as what they are proud of. This invites others to do the same and promotes an honest work environment that people can understand. They can also work together more effectively and productively.

Openness, as part of the workplace culture, can happen in company-wide settings, smaller team meeting settings, or in one-on-one meetings. In any of these contexts, the sharing should be genuine with the intention of honesty and connection. Leaders’ vulnerability can also be learning opportunities for other leaders and teams and inspire behavior.

Being transparent

In addition to being open, leaders need to be clear and direct in their message, whether it is reporting quarterly results, new marketing strategies, or product milestones. Telling it as it is and sharing as much information as possible with teams is key to team motivation and continued momentum forward. Employees are more likely to be receptive and responsive to business shifts when they understand what is going on and why. Transparency requires vulnerability in leaders because sometimes it means sharing delicate, sensitive, or negative information. Leaders need to discern what and how they share, as they do not know how teams will respond. At the same time boundaries are inherent in leadership positions and must be maintained.

Being authentic

Being one’s true self takes courage, but it also allows leaders to be fully themselves and thus more fully present at work. People can sense when others are authentic or not. They are more likely to listen to, respect, and follow leaders who exhibit this quality. One can be authentic and still maintain healthy boundaries, which are also important in the work environment. Showing vulnerability does not mean ignoring these.

Partnering with the team

Strong leaders are self-aware and confident; they understand that they are not an expert at everything. Vulnerability can strengthen a team when leaders feel comfortable enough to lean on the team to fill in any gaps. It also allows them to partner with the team and show the team members how valuable they are. They feel accountable to leaders who include them and are counting on them to help.

Being okay with uncertainty

Accept and get comfortable with uncertainty. Leaders demonstrate vulnerability when they openly acknowledge that business matters and climate are uncertain. Leaders who can do this generate a feeling of steadiness, confidence, and strength in a genuine way. At the same time, leaders need to be flexible and change course during uncertain times.

Creating psychological safety

Vulnerability is a strengthening force for leaders, teams, and companies. It also contributes to a sense of psychological safety, whereby team members feel safe to share ideas and to be themselves in the workplace. When leaders show their own vulnerability, others tend to support and listen to each other respectfully. Leaders become more accessible, which enables employees to also take risks in sharing thoughts and being vulnerable themselves. They bypass feelings of shame or embarrassment and venture forth with brainstorming ideas, even if they might seem silly. People feel freer to bring more of themselves to work.

Being vulnerable also means being empathetic to others; for example, asking about team members’ families who are ill. Sharing about struggles in life is not weak; it builds connection, which is strengthening. When one knows who they are and feels comfortable being that person without hiding or misrepresenting it, walls of separation break down. It becomes easier to understand and empathize with others without the barriers creating a protective “shield.”

VUCA is an acronym from the late 1990s that is based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Especially now we are living in a volatile world full of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It may seem counterintuitive, but vulnerability can be an antidote to these. At the very least it can help open space and relieve tension created by these aspects with which most people feel uncomfortable. Conversely when leaders try to make it appear that everything is under control during times like these, there can be more strain and mistrust when the reality shows otherwise.

Ultimately vulnerability shows a leader’s courage. When leaders embrace who they are and what they are feeling, they become more resilient and stronger. Vulnerability is increasingly an important leadership quality required to navigate the immense uncertainty in today’s business world.

What to do TODAY?

Karen Natasha Coaching helps many people access awareness about themselves, which can increase understanding of themselves in relation to others and helps leaders embrace vulnerability in the workplace. We help people shift their energy, so that they can move forward with assurance, confidence, and renewed energy to achieve their goals and bring their best selves to work. Contact Karen Natasha Coaching for a consultation to experience how we can help.

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