Why Vulnerability May Be a Leader's Greatest Strength
Showing vulnerability is considered by some to be a weakness, especially in the business world — but that couldn't be farther from the truth.
Early on in my career, I had a certain understanding about how to be a successful woman in the business world. Showing vulnerability and emotion was a weakness. I imagined the men in the group rolling their eyes at each other, saying, "This is what happens when you put women in leadership." Not until I was leading a company did those beliefs change.
Rather than weakness, I learned showing vulnerability implies courage. Keeping our distance with professional composure is comfortable; emotional display comes with uncertainty and risk. Everyone has emotions, and fully feeling and labeling them without judgment is part of the process of regulating them. When we ignore feelings of anger, grief or sadness, they can come back even more strongly, affecting our ability to make balanced decisions. My experience as a leader taught me that being vulnerable enough to share them is better for the team.
Get at the heart of social connections
My early fears of being seen as an "emotional woman," kept me hiding my emotions from view, but often, being vulnerable would have been in service to the group's objectives. When I felt guilty about traveling all the time for work and missing my kids' events, I harbored this negative emotion instead of speaking up and processing it. Never in a million years, for example, would I have asked my boss for time off to go to the dentist to address a toothache. "Leave work?" I imagined them saying. "Figure that out on a Saturday." So I would work through the distracting pain until I could handle it on my own time. But being vulnerable to that unknown risk so I could fix it and work at 100% would have been more valuable to the team.
Regardless of gender, everyone feels vulnerable being authentic and exposing ourselves for who we are and what we genuinely think and feel. Over time, I realized my male colleagues were experiencing the same guilt and fears about working so much. We might speak about vulnerability a little differently, but most men and women now recognize that they experience the same emotions, which has allowed for more discussion about vulnerability. Today, I would never want someone to think they had to ask me to go to the dentist. I would prefer they know I need them healthy and well, and trust they could take the time they need to get that done.
Even the boss makes mistakes
As leaders, we owe it to our teams to admit when we make a mistake, but it takes vulnerability to admit that we can be wrong. For example, imagine someone recommended a change that I turned it down but later recognized as the right move. There is value in providing an explanation of what made me go in that direction, but ultimately, I need to take responsibility for being wrong. People respect it when others, especially those in leadership, demonstrate the vulnerability it takes to acknowledge they, too, are only human. Leadership vulnerability drives the courage to innovate and trust among team members, with benefits that ripple into their engagement, satisfaction and retention.
Mistakes happen, but a leader who pretends to be perfect and expects perfection ends up with a team too frightened to come clean about their mistakes. They either avoid admitting when they make them or avoid the risk of making them altogether, holding back creativity, innovation and new ideas. Leaders who set an example by admitting to their own mistakes and working as a team to get through them end up with a team more willing to trust they can safely make mistakes, too. When leaders can embed vulnerability into the organizational culture through their actions, the dialogue between a team and its leadership becomes stronger.
Raising others can raise the whole team
It might be easier for leaders to feel competitive when someone else demonstrates leadership skills, but being vulnerable enough to recognize and nourish them is much more valuable. We used to have a guy leading our tech team, whose ability to build supportive teams was what catapulted our company to success in several categories. I felt like I was taking a business course every time I watched him work and interact with his team, but it took vulnerability to acknowledge what a phenomenal leader he was.
Tech teams can more easily get siloed and feel disassociated from the business, but he made sure his people understood how their work fit into the company's big picture. He helped them balance the right amount of time spent driving at what they do with acknowledging and supporting one another. His leadership style bled into other teams, affecting the development of those groups for the better. A rising tide lifts all boats, and he did, because we supported his work as a leader.
Regular sessions bring you closer
Depending on the company, it can be hard to avoid silos, but even siloed departments can still work together toward common goals with the right mechanisms in place. Set up opportunities for people to trust one another with disciplined feedback sessions. Open the session with a thoughtful process, like letting people share their emotions — from feeling overwhelmed at work to a sick child at home keeping them distracted. Then, at the end of the discussion, repeat the opening process to clear up any nervousness or uncertainty. Some might feel more in sync or less worried about their goals.
Opening and closing feedback sessions with a deliberate intention to share and process emotions develops greater team trust. The first time I did one of these sessions with my leadership team, the person who shared first tearfully described a rough time one of their family members was having. We had worked next to each other every day for years, and I hadn't had any idea of what he was going through! I felt guilty for not being more aware but it was a good lesson for me, and the rest of the team, to develop those relationships so we could work better together.
When leaders are courageous enough to be vulnerable, they show their teams that they value their trust more than being infallible. Vulnerable leaders seem more authentic, transparent and fair, which makes others feel safer and more secure about the direction they are leading the company, an advantage amplified since the pandemic drove us into greater uncertainty. In this new hybrid world, a culture encouraging vulnerability can build deeper interpersonal connections across greater distances. With keeping people connected more critical than ever, it's time leaders embrace vulnerability as an asset.
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