Vulnerability Makes a Leader Strong, Not Weak
Brené Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability became one of the most-watched presentations the organization has ever produced. While Brown’s straightforward manner and sharp wit has helped her attract a fan base, it’s her core message that has clearly resonated with a worldwide audience. As she summed up in her 2019 Netflix special, Call to Courage:
“No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. It is that simple. If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.”
The image of an all-knowing, unwavering leader has been a difficult one to shake from the public consciousness. At the same time, we all know someone who tries too hard to project a particular image, and it’s usually not hard to see straight through the pretense.
Still, vulnerability takes work, and it can be scary to let your guard down. Here are a few practical tips to help you on your journey.
Vulnerability is not weakness
There’s a common workplace fear that showing vulnerability will come across as weakness. In fact, the opposite is true. “Let me dispel the myth or visual image of a leader walking around with a box of tissues and sharing their deepest, most personal secrets with everyone,” Angela Kambouris writes for Entrepreneur. “Being vulnerable at work simply means you are ready to take the armor off, put aside any pretenses, and check your ego at the door.”
Leadership doesn’t mean pretending to know everything, or always having the last word. Good leaders have the strength to acknowledge their own limitations and foster potential in those around them. In the wise words of Brown: “We can measure how brave you are by how vulnerable you're willing to be."
Put aside your ego
Part and parcel to being vulnerable is accepting that you don’t always have all the answers. A vulnerable leader practices humility, actively solicits the perspectives and thoughts of their team, and doesn’t feel obligated to know everything all the time.
For many leaders, this openness can pose a threat to their egos. That’s normal: The ego is inherently self-interested, and constantly craves approval and validation. Keeping your ego in check requires constant vigilance. But when leaders acknowledge their own shortcomings, it creates a culture of accountability and respect.
The same goes for when you make a mistake: Even if people are disappointed, they’re sure to trust you more than if you lie. Amy C. Edmondson and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic make this point for a piece in Harvard Business Review, writing that “the short-term sense of invincibility you may experience when you refrain from admitting your mistakes is (a) short-lived and (b) delusional. Failing to admit you were wrong is an ineffective strategy to persuade others that you are right, and when this strategy fails, people will question not only your judgment but also your self-awareness.”
And when your ego inevitably flares, remember: It’s not about you.
Related: Making Vulnerability a Strength
By being honest about your vulnerabilities, you’re showing your team that you’re a person, not a robot. Consider Howard Schultz, who upon resuming his post as the CEO of Starbucks in 2007 was transparent with his employees about the challenges the company was facing.
“When you’re vulnerable and ask for help, people come towards you,” he said in one interview. “I’ve tried to do that every step of the way and be honest and truthful about what I know, what I don’t and most importantly, what I believe.”
While it can be hard to be forthright when things aren’t going as planned, being direct benefits everyone in the long run. And the trust you earn by being honest has quantifiable results: One study found that on average, the public companies found to be the most trustworthy outperform the S&P 500 by more than 25%.
Have a “so what”
As Brown puts it, vulnerability is not about “letting it all hang out.” When sharing your vulnerabilities, make sure you have a clear end goal; ideally one that helps others out.
Like millions of others around the world, I was recently sick with Covid-19. I’ve since recovered, thankfully, but I did share some details of the ordeal with my team. I told them about how, during the week I was hospitalized, the day-to-day hustle of my life washed away, and I was able to think about the big picture. I thought about my children first, and then my company, and how I hoped our products were serving people. I realized that the key to building a great product is by having a great and consistent team.
I shared these thoughts with my 252 employees because I wanted to be transparent about where my thoughts were coming from, and how I arrived upon them. I was so glad to be back at work after being sick, and I wanted them to know that.
You don’t have to have been in a hospital to create the space for conversations like this one. (And hopefully, you won’t be.) Whether you share a challenge you’re facing or offering a glimpse of what’s going on with the company behind the scenes, be sure there’s a reason for why you’re revealing what you are.