Vulnerability in Leadership
Anyone who has attended a Board meeting or any other executive meeting has likely witnessed the contention that undoubtedly rears its ugly head in such settings. There are many agendas at play, both hidden and otherwise, and many times it seems that someone must become a casualty for another to achieve recognition. These are the traits often exhibited by upper level leaders who are the role models in every organization. Emerging leaders hoping to advance their careers watch and learn. They mimic the behaviors they witness because to be taken seriously, they feel they must. This is the cycle.
In all levels of my career, I’ve looked for some sign, any sign, of vulnerability in my leaders. Not because I was looking for a weakness, but because I was looking for strength. I craved something I could identify with. As an employee, I often wished for a strong leader who could be vulnerable by admitting they too had made mistakes. As an aspiring leader, I longed for a leader who would tell me that they didn’t have all the answers after all. It would have been reassuring to know that in reality, I wouldn’t either. Finally, as a leader, I wished I had been given the permission to stop pretending that I did.
Consider what a leader who could confidently display some vulnerability might be able to do. They might be able to help that employee see that just because they aren’t performing well now, doesn’t mean that with effort, they can’t become a top performer. It could help that aspiring leader understand that it’s okay to fail sometimes, and further, it’s part of a strong leader’s character to admit as much. It might take the ego out of the Boardroom and leave space for more collaboration and better organizational outcomes. Best yet, as a leader, it might open your eyes to the solutions your team may have, that you don’t.
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Over the years I’ve thought a lot about vulnerability in leadership. I’ve thought about it from an employee’s perspective, an aspiring leader’s perspective, and finally through the lens of a leader. From each perspective, I wished for real-life examples.
As leaders we’ve been taught all things contrary to vulnerability. Phrases such as “never let them see you sweat”, and “only the strong survive” have always been words to live by. Even the unspoken signals we receive tell us that it’s better to come across as “difficult” than to ever be seen as vulnerable. I suspect that this might be due to the perception that vulnerability equals weakness.