How to Embrace Vulnerability in Leadership

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What does vulnerability in leadership look like? What are the beliefs stopping leaders from showing vulnerability?

Vulnerability in leadership involves the ability to acknowledge the risk and uncertainty of a situation, talk openly about it, and create a safe space for your subordinates to discuss it. Wrong beliefs like “vulnerability means weakness” or “there must be trust before vulnerability” stop leaders from showing vulnerability.

Read on to discover how to embrace vulnerability in leadership.

Vulnerable Leadership

Vulnerability is exposure to the risk of failure, to situations with uncertain outcomes, or to the possibility of emotional harm. Embracing vulnerability in leadership is at the base of brave leadership: it’s only in meeting vulnerability head-on that you can master your response to the fear and uncertainty that come along with it. Before you can embrace vulnerability in leadership, you need to understand what it looks like. There are six widely-held myths about what vulnerability is, and how you should react to it. 

Myth #1: Being Vulnerable Means Being Weak

While vulnerability does stem from situations that make you feel afraid, it’s important to understand that vulnerability isn’t fear. Rather, it’s recognizing your feelings of fear and knowing that something out of your control may happen, and being brave enough to push on anyway. It’s not weak—walking into, rather than avoiding, tough situations or the potential for failure takes an immense amount of courage.

Myth #2: Vulnerability Isn’t for Me

Life is naturally full of experiences that have uncertain outcomes and expose you to the risk of failure—it’s not possible to have a work culture void of vulnerability. No matter what measures you take, vulnerability will naturally happen to you and your team members. Choosing not to engage with this vulnerability doesn’t signal bravery or control. Rather, it signals that your work culture is based in hiding from and being driven by emotions. 

A work culture that doesn’t “do” vulnerability reacts to failure with fear and anger, in a way that doesn’t truly represent their values. On the other hand, work cultures that embrace vulnerability in leadership encourage engagement with the emotions of vulnerability, which helps the team react to failure with productive self-awareness that’s aligned with the organization’s values. 

Myth #3: I Don’t Need Anyone

Asking for help, sharing ideas, and connecting with others can be frightening because you can’t control how your need for help or your ideas are perceived, or you may be rejected. You can avoid this vulnerability only if you never connect with or depend on anyone, but of course, this isn’t a plausible choice in an innovative work culture where collaboration is crucial. Humans are social by nature—we depend on the ability to communicate, work together, and depend on one another in order to thrive. Fearing, and subsequently refusing, this collaborative part of our nature can cause innovative cultures to collapse.

Myth #4: I Can Have Vulnerability Without Uncertainty

Some organizations refuse to adopt vulnerability in leadership because they misunderstand the difference between systemic vulnerability and relational vulnerability

Systemic vulnerability is unwelcome—it refers to flaws or instability in your organization’s systems. In this context, it makes sense to mitigate risks and reduce opportunities for uncertainty. On the other hand, relational vulnerability refers to the vulnerability of people: the risk and uncertainty that comes with trying something new, or the possibility of emotional exposure in tough conversations. This is a welcome type of vulnerability that helps team members grow. 

Some leaders, especially in fields where uncertainty or instability signals failure, find it difficult to invite vulnerability into the workplace, or try to engineer a type of vulnerability that doesn’t involve uncertainty—suggesting an app to guide tough conversations, for example. However, it’s important to practice relational vulnerability, in all its uncertainty and need for courage, to bolster your team members’ growth, learning, and innovation.

Myth #5: Trust Must Happen Before Vulnerability Can

It’s widely thought that you need to trust someone deeply before you can be vulnerable with them. In reality, vulnerability and trust are a constant exchange—you do need to trust someone to be vulnerable with them, but you also need to be vulnerable in order to build trust. It’s important to realize that this exchange doesn’t happen suddenly, with a grand gesture of trustworthiness. Trust-building happens in a long, slow sequence of small moments where it’s clear that people are truly listening to and connecting with you. 

Every interaction you have with someone is the opportunity for a trust-building moment if you recognize it and respond accordingly. When someone is vulnerable with you, and you choose to turn toward their vulnerability—that is, listen to and support them—you earn their trust and the right to share your vulnerability with them. Imagine that you see your colleague is upset after a meeting. You can build trust with her by asking what’s wrong, listening to her, and asking questions to help work through the problem together.

However, it’s just as easy to destroy trust by turning away from the vulnerability someone is offering you—when you choose to ignore or criticize them, you stop the trust-building exchange in its tracks. Imagine that your upset colleague had asked to talk to you about her tough meeting, but you chose to go back to your emails, saying you were too busy to listen. It’s not likely she’ll trust you again with a moment of vulnerability.

Myth #6: Vulnerability in Leadership Means Spilling Everything 

Practicing vulnerability as a leader does not mean spilling all your emotions and personal details. Instead, brave leaders practice vulnerability by acknowledging the uncertainty or risk of a situation, talking openly about the emotions tied to it, and creating a space where your team members feel safe discussing it. This might look like, “Our organization is undergoing a lot of changes. It’s normal to be anxious during this time—I’m right there with you. What questions or concerns do you have? How can I support you through this?”

Asking for input from your team members, thereby building a safe space for discussion, is crucial to encouraging vulnerability among your team. Without fear of backlash, they’re more likely to ask questions, propose new ideas, or admit mistakes. Be sure that your team members fully understand what the objectives of this space are. 

  • Having safe spaces does not mean they won’t face any pressure or problems. The creation of the safe space for discussion does mean that when pressure or problems come up, the tough conversations surrounding them will happen face-to-face, and honestly. There won’t be gossip at the water cooler or leaked information among colleagues. 
  • Having safe spaces does not mean that everyone on the team is expected to be best friends. It does mean that people can enter conversations trusting that their colleagues will be honest and respectful, attentive and nonjudgmental. 

In this process of speaking openly and building a safe space, be careful not to practice fake vulnerability—this type of vulnerability shows up in two ways: manipulative oversharing and insincerity.

Manipulative oversharing happens when a leader expresses too much personal emotion and information. This is usually fueled by selfish underlying intentions—self-protective reasons they’re sharing outside the bounds of what’s smart and effective to share—and underlying expectations—the desired (but unlikely) outcome, usually sympathy. 

Imagine that a shop is going through some tough months, and the staff is concerned about their hours being cut. The shop owner decides to get really vulnerable with them, saying, “I’m trying my best and working around the clock but we’re hemorrhaging money, I don’t know how I’ll make rent next month, and I’m losing sleep every night over it. We really need to stick together for support at this time.” The underlying intention of her oversharing is to convince her team that she’s a good person trying her best, and her expectation is that they’ll sympathize with her instead of shaming or judging her. In reality, her oversharing will likely cause her team to stop trusting her, panic, and start looking for new jobs. 

Manipulative oversharing can be avoided by setting boundaries: while the shop owner’s oversharing is okay with a mentor with whom she’s established a fully-honest relationship, her team should hear, “It’s been a slow few months and I know it’s causing anxiety. I’m working on a plan to get us through this. I’m happy to hear any input or questions you have.”

The second form of fake vulnerability is insincerity. Insincerity is asking for input without building space for discussion. It looks like asking how you can support your team without giving them time to answer; ignoring your team’s ideas, getting defensive, or shooting down ideas that you don’t agree with; and saying you accept your team’s suggestions and then complaining about them later to a colleague. Practicing insincere vulnerability breeds anxiety and distrust among your team members, who will hold back from speaking about their concerns for fear of being ridiculed or criticized.

The Biggest Myths About Vulnerability in Leadership

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  • A breakdown of the four courage-building skills that make up brave leadership
  • The three reasons why most people avoid vulnerability
  • How to recover and move on quickly from failure

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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