Why Leader Vulnerability is a Strength

Summary: There is compelling evidence that leaders who are prepared to show their vulnerability more easily gain the trust of others, and are in fact, more effective leaders.

In my four decades in training and coaching executive leaders in the public and private sectors, I’ve found that the vulnerability of leaders has been a strength, and conversely, projected invulnerability a weakness.

Admitting our mistakes, seeking help, apologizing, and acknowledging we don’t have the answers all involve expressions of vulnerability.

Dictionary definitions of vulnerability focus on weakness: “defenselessness, powerless, passivity, feebleness.” Yet the synonyms of “openness, receptivity and sensitivity” are rarely referenced.

Psychologist Robert D. Stolorow says writes in Psychology Today, “It is pervasive in our cultural meaning-making to equate vulnerability–whether physical, emotional, or existential–with something shameful, an abhorrent weakness to be kept hidden and evaded, or counteracted through some form of reactive aggression and destructiveness. Vulnerability, in other words, is regarded as an aberration, a contemptible anomaly to be expunged from our experiential world.”

Poet David Whyte says: “Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice , vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding under-current of our natural state.”

According to author Brené Brown, in her latest book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.” She defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”

Psychologist and author of several best-selling books, including The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown describes three myths about vulnerability:

  1. Vulnerability is a weakness. Brown says “To feel is to be vulnerable.” So when we consider vulnerability to be a weakness, we consider feeling one’s emotions to be so, too, she says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.”
  2. Some people don’t or can’t experience vulnerability. At some point in their lives everyone feels vulnerable. “Life is vulnerable,” Brown writes. “Being vulnerable isn’t the choice we have to make. Rather, the choice is how we respond when the elements of vulnerability greet us: uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Many of us respond by avoiding or suppressing vulnerability.”
  3. Vulnerability means spilling some of your secrets. Many people equate vulnerability with the need to exposing our deepest secrets and as Brown puts it, “letting it all hang out.” But vulnerability embraces boundaries and trust, she says. “Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable takes courage.”

According to Ana Bruk and her colleagues writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, contrary to our worst fears, having the courage to show our vulnerability in these ways will often be rewarded. Bruk says we have a conflicting view of us versus others: we have a negative view of our own vulnerability but not of others’ — the researchers call this “the beautiful mess effect”.

Bruk and her colleagues at the University of Mannheim conducted seven studies with hundreds of participants. The participants in the studies were asked to imagine scenarios in which either they or another person displayed intentional and then they either rated their own vulnerability or the other person’s vulnerability, respectively. The results showed repeatedly that participants perceived their own vulnerability more negatively and less positively than other people’s.

“Even when examples of showing vulnerability might sometimes feel more like weakness from the inside, our findings indicate, that, to others, these acts might look more like courage from the outside,” Bruk said. She and her team concluded: “Given the discussed positive consequences of showing vulnerability for the relationship quality, health, or job performance, it might, indeed, be beneficial to try to overcome one’s fears and to choose to see the beauty in the mess of vulnerable situations.”

Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak, writing in Harvard Business Review explains that “when an individual asks for help, the oxytocin (a brain chemical that is associated with social bonding) levels of the person receiving the request increases. In other words, Zak contends, “when a person demonstrates vulnerability, others are socially inclined to assist.” Far from being a sign of leadership weakness, expressing uncertainty or requesting assistance builds camaraderie. “Asking for help is the sign of a secure leader– one who engages everyone to reach goals,” writes Zak.

The Edelman Trust Barometers show that trust in business leaders is declining. We can add to that the increasing prevalence of corporate misconductand toxic corporate cultures, as well as executive self-interest where executives may earn as much as 271 times more than the average worker.

According to Augusto Giacoman, writing in Strategy + Business, In business, vulnerability has been generally seen as weakness. Media headlines encourage businesses to avoid vulnerability or suffer the consequences: Personal vulnerability is considered a liability for leaders and their organizations, so it is studiously avoided. Conventional wisdom holds that it is difficult to lead or negotiate or make demands from a position of perceived weakness.

What Vulnerable Leaders Do

Being vulnerable doesn’t mean leaders need to share your deepest, most personal secrets with everyone, or share their deepest fears or anxieties. So what does being vulnerable in the work environment look like? The Power of Vulnerability: How to Create a Team of Leaders by Shifting INward authors Barry Kaplan and Jeffrey Manchester describe some of the behaviors of vulnerable leaders:

  • They accept vulnerability as a strength. Being can make you a better leader because you stop wasting energy protecting your ego. By accepting vulnerability as a strength, you stop needing to show others that you have all the answers and a Teflon exterior.
  • They admit and own their mistakes. All leaders make mistakes. The more willing they are to admit and own their mistakes, not make excuses or rationalizations or blame others rather than taking responsibility, the more others will trust the leaders. Taking responsibility, apologizing, and making amends for the mistakes are not always easy things to do, but they’re essential for leaders to have credibility and integrity.
  • They share their fears and insecurities. When leaders admit their fears and share it with others it can diminish the power of the fear. Second, it allows others to realize leaders are human not robots. Third, it gives the people around the leader permission to feel and express their own fear, so adversity and crisis can be dealt with together.
  • They ask for and receive help from others. Because many leaders need to project a persona of having all the answers, asking for and receiving help from others can be seen as a weakness. However, being the kind of leader who has great self-awareness and self-knowledge when leaders admit they don’t know something or have the answers and ask for help is a sign of strength and an opportunity to empower others in an authentic way.
  • They continually check their ego at the door. Most CEOs’ Achilles heel is their hubris. Research has shown that many CEOs operate in a kind of echo chamber in which the executive team or Board of Directors panders to them(several studies have documented this). Invariably, this results in leaders’ overconfidence in their performance and capabilities, leading to unethical behavior and dishonesty.
  • They stop the spin in tackling “exogenous vulnerability.” Setbacks will happen. Public relations-inspired rhetoric are often superficial (eg: the BP disaster); it follows the playbook of accepting mistakes, apologizing, and outlining proposed changes. In an era of fake news and information overload, authenticity is only present in the simple truth.

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” is a strong proponent of leaders who show vulnerability. Lencioni writes that “the strongest people in life are the ones that are comfortable saying ‘I don’t know.’” To Lencioni, vulnerability is not at all soft — “it’s the key to building great teams.”

In fact, there are plenty of reasons to believe that vulnerability can be an asset for leaders, as Emma Seppala argued in this 2014 Harvard Business Review article. She says vulnerable leaders inspire; are more authentic; and build bonds that lead to increased performance.

Seppala goes on to describe the outcome benefits and characteristics of vulnerable leaders, most notable of which are:

  • “Vulnerability allows for building greater bonds and increasing emotional connection. Vulnerability plays a key role in laying the groundwork for such experiences. When leaders are vulnerable, they are more open and emotionally available, which creates more bonding opportunities and improves team performance.”
  • “Vulnerability is required for authenticity. We know that authenticity helps build trust, which is especially valuable now, when trust in business and leaders in general is sorely lacking. And authenticity means being open and honest about your beliefs and values. Authentic behaviors include admitting mistakes, showing emotion, and not hiding behind a manufactured facade. It’s impossible to be authentic without being willing to be vulnerable…Research shows that onlookers subconsciously register lack of authenticity. Just by looking at someone, we download large amounts of information to others.”
  • “Vulnerability inspires teams. In 2011, professors Peter Fuda and Richard Bahdman, of Australia’s Macquarie Graduate School of Management, conducted an in-depth study of seven CEOs that had experienced remarkable personal growth and professional success in their businesses. Vulnerability emerged as a key theme from their interviews and linguistic analysis.”
  • “Vulnerability allows for building greater bonds and increasing emotional connection. Vulnerability plays a key role in laying the groundwork for such experiences. When leaders are vulnerable, they are more open and emotionally available, which creates more bonding opportunities and improves team performance.”

A leader who shows vulnerability is someone who stops feeling compelled to be the first one with an idea or the first one to answer a question. Becoming vulnerable requires a mindset shift where you start to see the aspirations of the business through the eyes of the people you lead. This invites them to become more involved in — and in fact to become the drivers of — the conversation. When you are vulnerable, your employees feel more connected, invested, respected, and vital to the organization. Everyone benefits.

Now more than ever, the world needs leaders who are vulnerable, empathetic, and compassionate — servant leaders — who put the interests of others and the world first. We’ve seen how the other kinds of leaders — self-serving, narcissistic (and sometimes psychopathic) and toxic — have created chaos and damage. It’s time for a change.

Read my new book: Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Ethical and Moral Leaders

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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others