This may not be the first time you’ve heard the words vulnerable and leadership in the same sentence. It’s become a revolutionary topic in today’s professional development sphere.
You might have mixed feelings about the idea of vulnerable leadership. Perhaps discomfort, lack of clarity as well as curiosity and intrigue. As a corporate leader, you may have some of these thoughts:
- Intuitively, I know that vulnerability helps build trust and respect on a human level, but how can show vulnerable leadership without being viewed as weak in my corporate work setting?
- What are the concrete benefits of being vulnerable with my team?
- I get the concept, but what does it actually look like in my day to day work?
I’m happy to share that you can embrace vulnerability in a way that feels safe and turn it into your leadership superpower.
What True Vulnerable Leadership Is (and Isn’t)
First, let’s set something straight. For many years we’ve been told that leaders shouldn’t show imperfections, weaknesses, or any sense that we don’t have everything under control.
Today, however, we are being called to lead more authentically. Research from people like social science professor Brené Brown is debunking the outdated, yet commonly held belief that we need to keep our walls up. The reality is that vulnerability lies at the root of all human connection and is where creativity and innovation begin. This is precisely why we need to embrace it if we want to lead collaborative and prosperous teams.
This may seem counterintuitive and even risky as a leader. However, the feeling of real human connection with leadership is often the missing piece for people in many work environments.
When we appear as if we know it all and everything is always under control, we’re actually making it harder on ourselves and those we lead. We close ourselves off to new ideas and our team can feel it. This significantly impacts their motivation.
Truly influential leaders are authentic – we are not afraid of showing our humanness, which means we know our strengths and values, we welcome feedback and criticism, and we don’t shy away from asking for help.
Why is this so effective? Because when we lead from an authentic place, it means we must be vulnerable. We’re not hiding our true selves. This amplifies the “we” – we all struggle, we’re all human – uniting you and your team. It leaves behind the “me versus them” mindset that creates separation.
Why Authentic Connections Lead to Strong Teams
Now that we’ve cleared up the fallacies around vulnerable leadership, you may be wondering how exactly it shows up with you and your team.
Research from Harvard Professor Jeff Polzer looks at how vulnerability plays out in day-to-day behaviors and interactions in organizational settings. First, he clarifies that the impact of vulnerability is not the “touchy-feely” association we often have with the term. Rather, the impact comes through very clear exchanges of openness that create cooperation and trust – he calls this a vulnerability loop.
The loop begins when someone (ideally beginning with you – as the leader and model for your team) shares something vulnerable like, “This project is going to be challenging, and I don’t have all of the answers.”
Polzer emphasizes the importance of that moment is about the receiver, not the discloser. Do they lean in? Do they connect? Do they share their own humanness? Or do they hide and pretend they have no limits or challenges? That is the moment of opportunity to build trust and where the loop continues.
Over time repeated vulnerability loops build the “cooperation muscle” which leads to the most innovative team dynamics. They all come down to the single interactions, repeated over and over.
Can you imagine where your team would be if you practiced these vulnerability loops over a year’s time? Think about where your team would be in five years…
Do You Have the Courage to Lead?
Before you decide to practice vulnerability, you need to know and accept that it will not be a comfortable process. It requires courage. One day, one interaction at a time. You don’t pretend you’re perfect, and that can make leaders feel very uncomfortable.
You can see though, it’s exactly what leads to deep trust and cooperation, and that is worth all the discomfort in the world.
Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s our greatest measure of courage.
— Brené Brown
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Colleen Slaughter Raue, Managing Partner of Authentic Leadership International
Colleen is a transformational leadership coach who guides international leaders as they attain the clarity, courage and self-confidence necessary to realize higher levels of productivity and fulfillment in both their personal and professional lives.
Her purpose is to facilitate her clients’ transformation from limiting beliefs and self-doubts into a deeper, more powerful knowingness of how much they – and what they envision for themselves – truly matter.
Colleen’s perspectives were recently featured in an article on the International Coach Federation’s website here.