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Why Vulnerability Is A Key Leadership Skill

Thursday 16 June, 2022
Letting yourself be vulnerable is not something that comes naturally, and for most people is really difficult. It goes against all of the ways we have learnt to be confident, capable and successful.
Vulnerability is even defined in a negative way. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded”. The Cambridge dictionary describes it as “easily physically or mentally hurt, influenced or attacked”.  Both of these definitions are negative, and associate vulnerability with weakness.

So why would we even want to be vulnerable? 

Before we can answer this, we need to understand the psychology of humans, and the workplace.

Why Vulnerability Is A Key Leadership Skill

The psychology of humans and the workplace

All humans are wired to avoid uncertainty. This is what kept us safe for millions of years - whereupon uncertainty would trigger a fear response: of fight or flight. Despite the modern world being a very different place to the jungle, our brains still work in much the same way as they did millions of years ago. In the workplace, if a person feels under attack, then they are likely to respond with 'fight' (becoming aggressive) or 'flight' (avoidance).  Rather than spears, the fight attack may be executed by undermining a person’s credibility.  Similarly, many leaders take flight by actively avoiding hard conversations or by not addressing poor behaviours. The workplace today classifies this as 'politics' but in essence it is just like our primitive ancestors - reacting to uncertainty and competing to survive.

So if people are still the same, why is vulnerability now a leadership skill?

The other side however of being human is that we have a need to belong and develop deep relationships. In 1995, Baumeister and Leary published a landmark paper which firmly identified belonging as a universal human need, which affects our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Even within the workplace this need is easy to observe once highlighted; teams, functions and companies invest millions every year in developing a culture which creates a sense of shared belonging.  

Being vulnerable is the same as interviewing for a deep, honest relationship. By peeling back the 'armour' you are demonstrating your trust in them and desire to connect. Sharing more of the whole you (including the imperfect parts) encourages others to also let down their defences and stop pretending or projecting false confidence. Not only does vulnerability create trust, it builds empathy and motivates people to help each other. It says we are all human and imperfect, but we are better together.    

As a CEO, where your job is to direct human energy, being vulnerable builds belonging and a culture of transparency, creativity, collaboration and experimentation. People feel psychologically safe to try new things, to collaborate rather than compete and to have a learning mindset. Brene Brown, a globally recognised professor and vulnerability researcher for over a decade shares in her book Daring Greatly that “vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure…but it is also the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity”.  In other words, having the courage to be vulnerable creates deep reciprocal connection and belonging, which leads to exponential positives.

So how can leaders be vulnerable and credible?

While being vulnerable goes against our instincts, here are 5 simple ways to practice vulnerability appropriate to the workplace.  
  1. Share a real example where you got it wrong

    Every leader has these, but we tend to keep them buried. Share them with a view of highlighting what you learnt from the experience and encourage others to do the same. It will create psychological safety.

  2. Tell people when you don’t have the answer

    This doesn’t mean you won’t find it - just that you need their help. See how motivated people are to find solutions when they feel needed and valued.

  3. Share an insecurity or self-doubt you have

    This can be across any aspect of your life, big or small. It proves you also have fears, and that you are authentic and relatable.  

  4. Be inclusive

    Encourage people to bring their whole selves to work and let them know they are valued for their uniqueness. Share some of your 'quirks'.  Acknowledge and admire theirs. They don’t need to become someone else.  

  5. Be vulnerable and drive accountability

    Both are important in the workplace. Trading off one for the other is not the solution, rather showing how both coexist will ensure deep connection and results.  

So next time you feel awkward and uncomfortable with being vulnerable, give it a try. You may be surprised by how quickly it unlocks the power of being fully human - together.  


Author Credits

Rowena Millward, author of Uncomfortable Growth - Own Your Reinvention, is a global leader in business and personal growth. After twenty-five years working in Top 500 companies, she now provides consulting and capability services for many of the world's most admired companies. Rowena also provides executive career and life coaching, helping leaders navigate crossroads and turn trials into triumph. Find out more at www.macmorgan.co.
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