Vulnerability is not a word that most people associate with leadership. It sounds like a weakness, a flaw, a risk. It sounds like something you should avoid, hide, or fix.
But what if I told you that vulnerability is actually a strength, an asset, an opportunity? What if I told you that vulnerability can make you a better leader?
That’s the premise of this blog post. I’m going to challenge some of the myths and misconceptions about vulnerability and leadership, and show you how embracing vulnerability can enhance your credibility, trust, empathy, and influence as a leader.
But first, let me tell you a story.
A Story of Vulnerability
A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a conference for a group of HR professionals. I was supposed to share some insights and lessons from my HR Tech experience.
I prepared a presentation with some charts, graphs, and bullet points. I rehearsed it several times. I felt confident and ready.
But when I got on stage, something went wrong. My slides didn’t work. The projector was broken. I had no visuals to support my talk.
I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I felt exposed, embarrassed, and incompetent.
I had two options: I could either pretend that nothing happened and try to deliver my talk without the slides, or I could admit that I was unprepared and ask for help.
I chose the second option. I told the audience that I had a technical problem and that I needed their assistance. I asked them to bear with me as I tried to fix it. I apologized for the inconvenience and thanked them for their patience.
To my surprise, the audience was very supportive and understanding. They didn’t judge me or lose interest. They cheered me on and offered suggestions. They even laughed at some of my jokes.
Eventually, I managed to get the slides working and finished my talk. The audience applauded and gave me positive feedback. They said they enjoyed my presentation and learned a lot from it.
What happened? Why did they react so positively to my vulnerability?
The answer is simple: because they could relate to it.
They knew how it felt to be in my situation. They knew how hard it was to speak in public. They knew how frustrating it was to deal with technical issues.
They saw me as a human being, not as an expert or an authority. They saw me as someone who was honest, humble, and authentic. They saw me as someone who was willing to admit his mistakes, ask for help, and learn from failures.
They saw me as someone they could trust, respect, and follow.
That’s the power of vulnerability.
What is Vulnerability-Based Leadership?
Vulnerability-based leadership is a style of leadership that embraces vulnerability as a source of strength, not weakness.
It is a style of leadership that recognizes that leaders are not perfect, infallible, or invincible.
They are human beings who have emotions, doubts, fears, and flaws.
Vulnerability-based leadership is not about being weak, passive, or submissive. It is not about exposing yourself to unnecessary risks or harms.
It is not about oversharing or overloading your emotions on others.
Vulnerability-based leadership is about being open, honest, and courageous.
It is about showing your true self to others and inviting them to do the same. It is about creating a safe space for dialogue, feedback, and learning.
Vulnerability-based leadership is about practising behaviours such as:
- Admitting mistakes
- Asking for help
- Sharing emotions
- Giving feedback
- Receiving feedback
- Saying “I don’t know”
- Saying “I changed my mind”
- Saying “I’m sorry”
- Saying “Thank you”
These behaviours may seem simple or trivial, but they have profound effects on your leadership effectiveness. They can help you:
- Build credibility: When you admit your mistakes or say “I don’t know”, you show that you are honest and humble. You show that you are not afraid to acknowledge your limitations or gaps in your knowledge. You show that you are willing to learn from others and improve yourself. This builds your credibility as a leader who is trustworthy and reliable.
- Build trust: When you ask for help or say “thank you, ” you show respect and appreciate others. You show that you value their contributions and opinions. You show that you are not too proud or arrogant to seek their support or advice. This builds trust as a leader who is collaborative and cooperative.
- Build empathy: When you share your emotions or apologise, you show you are human and vulnerable. You show that you have feelings and needs. You show that you care about others and their feelings and needs. This builds empathy as a leader who is compassionate and understanding.
- Build influence: When you give or receive feedback, you show you are constructive and open-minded. You show that you are willing to share your perspectives and insights. You show that you are willing to listen to other perspectives and insights. This builds influence as a leader who is persuasive and adaptable.
These benefits of vulnerability-based leadership are not just based on anecdotes or opinions. They are backed by research and evidence.
For example, a study by Harvard Business School found that leaders who admitted their mistakes were rated as more competent, likeable, and charismatic by their followers than those who did not.
Another study by the University of Michigan found that leaders who asked for help were rated more effective, confident, and respected by their followers than those who did not.
A third study by the University of Pennsylvania found that leaders who shared their emotions were rated more authentic, inspiring, and motivating by their followers than those who did not.
These studies show that vulnerability-based leadership can enhance your leadership performance, outcomes, and impact.
The Challenges and Barriers of Vulnerability-Based Leadership
If vulnerability-based leadership is so beneficial, why don’t more leaders practice it?
The answer is simple: because it’s hard.
Being vulnerable as a leader is not easy or comfortable. It goes against many of the norms and expectations of traditional leadership. It challenges many of the fears and obstacles that leaders face.
Some of these fears and obstacles are:
- Fear of rejection: Being vulnerable means exposing yourself to the possibility of being rejected, criticized, or ridiculed by others. You may worry that others will think less of you, lose respect, or stop following you if you show vulnerability.
- Fear of loss of control: Being vulnerable means giving up some control over your image, reputation, or authority. You may worry that others will exploit you, undermine you, or challenge you if you show vulnerability.
- Fear of uncertainty: Being vulnerable means embracing the unknown and the unpredictable. You may worry that others will surprise you, disappoint you, or hurt you if you show your vulnerability.
- Obstacle of ego: Being vulnerable means letting go of your ego, pride, or arrogance. You may find it hard to admit your mistakes, ask for help, or apologize if you think that doing so will make you look weak, incompetent, or inferior.
- Obstacle of habit: Being vulnerable means changing your habits, routines, or patterns. You may find it hard to share your emotions, give feedback, or receive feedback if you are used to hiding them, avoiding them, or ignoring them.
- Obstacle of culture: Being vulnerable means challenging your culture, norms, or values. You may find it hard to say “I don’t know”, say “I changed my mind”, or say “I’m sorry” if you are taught that doing so will make you look ignorant, inconsistent, or guilty.
These fears and obstacles are real and valid. They can prevent you from being vulnerable as a leader. They can limit your growth, performance, and impact as a leader.
But they are not insurmountable. They can be overcome with some tips and tools that I will share with you in the next section.
How to Cultivate Vulnerability as a Leader
Vulnerability is not something that you have or don’t have. It is something that you do or don’t do.
Vulnerability is a skill and a mindset that you can develop and practice as a leader.
Here are some tips and tools that can help you cultivate vulnerability as a leader:
- Self-awareness: The first step to being vulnerable is to be aware of yourself. You need to know yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, your emotions, your needs, your values, your goals, your vision. You need to be honest with yourself about what makes you vulnerable and what holds you back from being vulnerable. You need to be mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and actions and how they affect your vulnerability and leadership.
- Self-compassion: The second step to being vulnerable is to be compassionate with yourself. You need to accept yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, your emotions, your needs, your values, your goals, your vision. You need to be kind to yourself when you make mistakes, face challenges, or experience failures. You need to be forgiving of yourself when you fall short of your expectations or standards. You need to be supportive of yourself when you try new things, take risks, or pursue opportunities.
- Courage: The third step to being vulnerable is to be courageous. You need to face your fears, overcome your obstacles, and challenge your norms. You need to take action even when
- you feel uncertain, uncomfortable, or insecure. You need to speak up even when you feel nervous, embarrassed, or intimidated. You need to be authentic even when you feel vulnerable, exposed, or judged.
- Authenticity: The fourth step to being vulnerable is to be authentic. You need to show your true self to others and invite them to do the same. You need to express your thoughts, feelings, and opinions honestly and respectfully. You need to listen to others’ thoughts, feelings, and opinions attentively and empathetically. You need to align your words and actions with your values and vision.
- Feedback: The fifth step to being vulnerable is to seek and give feedback. You need to ask for feedback from others and use it to improve yourself and your leadership. You need to give feedback to others and help them improve themselves and their leadership. You need to be open-minded, constructive, and respectful when receiving and giving feedback.
These tips and tools can help you cultivate vulnerability as a leader. They can help you develop your vulnerability skills and mindset as a leader.
But they are not enough. You also need to practice them regularly and consistently. You need to make them part of your daily habits and routines. You need to make them part of your culture and values.
You need to make vulnerability a way of life as a leader.
Vulnerability is not a weakness or a risk. It is a strength and an opportunity. It is a source of credibility, trust, empathy, and influence as a leader.
Vulnerability can make you a better leader.
But it’s not easy or comfortable. It’s hard and challenging. It requires self-awareness, self-compassion, courage, authenticity, and feedback.
It requires practice and consistency.
It requires a change of mindset and behaviour.
It requires a change of culture and values.
But it’s worth it.
Because vulnerability can make you a better leader.
And a better leader can make a better team, organization, and world.
If you want to learn more about how vulnerability can make you a better leader, check out Jacob Morgan’s keynote on How Vulnerability Can Make You A Better Leader at TechHR 2023.
He will share his insights and experiences on how he has used vulnerability as a tool for leadership success.
He will also provide you with some practical tips and tools on how to cultivate vulnerability as a leader.
Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from one of the world’s leading experts on leadership and the future of work!