Few myths are as universal as the notion that leaders ought to appear tough and confident. Or at least that was the case before the current and ongoing pandemic, which has exposed the many weaknesses of forceful, dominant leaders and highlighted the superiority of those who have had the courage to reveal their vulnerabilities.
Consider how Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the virus, displayed fearless bravado, and undermined the policies of wearing a mask or social distancing, putting others at risk. Contrast this with the honest and data-driven approach taken by Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, or Sanna Marin, which saved thousands of lives and mitigated the economic damage to Germany, New Zealand, and Finland respectively.
People in compeanies of all types are better off when their leaders are smart, honest, and caring when taking bold, potentially unpopular actions — when their focus is on helping the organisation move forward, not on how they look and certainly not on creating a false sense of invincibility that actually harms people. In a complex and uncertain world that demands constant learning and agility, the most adaptable leaders are those who are aware of their limitations, have the necessary humility to grow their own and others’ potential, and are courageous and curious enough to create sincere and open connections with others. They thrive on building inclusive team climates with psychological safety that encourage constructive criticism and dissent.
According to author Brené Brown, Ph.D, LMSW, 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.”
Myths and Misconceptions 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.Virtually Everyone feels vulnerability at one point in their life. “Life is vulnerable,” Brown writes. Being vulnerable isn’t the choice we have to make, she says. 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. Some of us hesitate to be vulnerable because we assume that means exposing our “secrets.” We assume that being vulnerable means spilling our hearts to strangers, 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.”
4. Another Myth: You Can Go It Alone. None of us, in recognizing our vulnerability, should pretend we are able to “go it alone.” When we ask others “Can you help me with this? What are your thoughts on this issue? Are you willing to work on this together with me?” “I’m not sure what we should do here,” we are expressing our vulnerabilities in a courageous and positive way.
In today’s business world, employees, shareholders and customers alike demand honest and transparent CEOs — those who are not only confident, but can be trusted. Yet recent Edelman Trust Barometers show that trust in business leaders is declining. Compounding this disturbing trend, the prevalence of corporate misconduct, value destruction, and toxic corporate cultures, executives may earn as much as 271 times more than the average worker.
To shake the image of the self-serving CEO with little to lose, business leaders need to be honest about their vulnerabilities — their own, their partners’, and their business’ susceptibility to loss or mistakes. If CEOs continue to act as though they have nothing to lose, or act out of self-interest they will fail to regain trust.
In business, vulnerability has been and is generally perceived as weakness. Media headlines encourage businesses to avoid vulnerability or suffer the consequences: “30% of Auto Parts Retailers’ Business Is Vulnerable to Amazon,” “Five Industries Most Vulnerable to Digital Disruption,”. 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 in the workspace doesn’t mean you walk around with a box of tissues and share your deepest, most personal secrets with everyone. So what does being vulnerable in the work environment look like?
Accept the fact that vulnerability as a strength. Being vulnerable isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t make you weak; it actually makes you a better leader because you stop wasting energy protecting yourself from what you think other people shouldn’t see. It allows you to start showing your authentic self. By accepting vulnerability as a strength, you stop worrying about having every answer and realize it’s okay to be wrong.
Admit and own their mistakes. We all make mistakes, especially as leaders. The more willing we are to admit and own our mistakes (not make excuses, point fingers, or avoid responsibility) the more others will trust us and want to follow our lead. Taking responsibility, apologising, and making amends for the mistakes we make are not always easy things to do, but they’re essential for us to have true credibility with the people around us.
Not taking themselves too seriously. t’s important for us to have a sense of humour and not get too full of ourselves, which is something many of us do, particularly as a leader. “Do you have any idea how important I think I am?” We must laugh at ourselves, notice when we get too serious, and have enough self-awareness to keep things in a healthy perspective.
Asking and receiving help from others. As leaders. most of us like to help others, but often we have a difficult time asking for and receiving help. Requesting help can be perceived, especially by us, as an admission of weakness or an acknowledgment that we’re not capable of doing something. However, all of us need help and support — and in some cases, we need a lot of it. Being the kind of leader who is comfortable enough with yourself and the people around you to admit when you don’t know something, can’t do something, or simply need help in making something happen, is not a sign of weakness; it’s both a sign of strength and an opportunity to empower others in an authentic way.
Benefits of Leader Vulnerability
1. It decreases tension and stress at work. Stress could be decreased considerably by allowing free discussion about controversial or uncomfortable issues.
2. It increases flow of ideas, creativity, and innovation. By acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers, leaders allow others to contribute their ideas and criticisms. And admitting their mistakes, leaders give allow others to make mistakes and talk about them. Leaders who acknowledge they made poor decisions through their example, let those under them know that it is okay to take risks or make constructive suggestions.
3. Emotional connections leads to less turnover. A great deal of workplace research points out that being emotionally connected to a workplace is often a deciding factor on whether or not people will stay or look elsewhere. An open, honest and authentic leadership makes it much more likely that staff at all levels will feel a connection to the organisation at an emotional level when they feel connected with their leaders.
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.
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