Updated: Sep 30, 2021
There are literally thousands of books written about leadership styles, techniques and principles. The top leadership qualities that are fairly well recognised following a quick search of the internet include vision, integrity, dedication, humility, resolve, openness, creativity, fairness, assertiveness and having a sense of humour.
A leadership quality you almost never hear about is vulnerability, the ability to share openly with staff about your leadership fears, weaknesses and issues.
Patrick Lencioni of The Table Group recognises that one of the keys to healthy leadership is vulnerability. In spite of all the talk about sensitivity and openness, most leaders, young and old alike, live in fear of vulnerability and do everything in their power to maintain their illusions of strength and control. Unfortunately, by doing so they make their jobs more stressful and hurt the performance of the organisations they lead. Many leaders of the 21st century are still leading and being trained to lead assuming the top down, hierarchical military structures of last century.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, most leaders end up learning the majority of their leadership skills on the job and through the mentoring of other leaders, or by trial and error. Leaders learn pretty quickly that demanding respect for their leadership just does not work. This is especially true in a not for profit organisation, where staff are often serving from altruistic motives at lower than market value salary, or in a school where teachers as professional staff have a high degree of daily independence in their work.
Vulnerability is one of the most difficult, unnatural things for a human being to do. This is because it triggers fear – the fear that people will use your vulnerability against you, that you will be laughed at, or that your leadership will be undermined because of it. Getting comfortable being vulnerable in front of the people we lead is a critical element of building trust and credibility. Another way of looking at this is that instead of leaders demanding respect of staff by virtue of their position and status, with openness and vulnerability they end up commanding the respect of staff because of their willingness to be “real” with staff as they exercise their leadership.
Vulnerability is not about overt displays of emotion or presenting as a weak leader. Vulnerability is also not really about personal conversations with your staff about sensitive personal problems, but occasionally it can involve this.
Leadership vulnerability is this – it is the willingness of a leader to give people a glimpse of the human being who is normally presented in formal settings, standing up the front in the suit, or sitting behind the big desk. Vulnerability is about being approachable and “real” with people. For the leader seeking to be more vulnerable and real with their staff, this usually involves revealing their passions, their fears, their strengths and their weaknesses, all in the context of work. Leaders are generally pretty good at revealing their passions and their strengths – many are the example of the visionary leader standing at the podium sharing their vision for a brighter future, or rallying the staff behind a grand new plan for expansion or a new program being launched.
Rarely however do leaders have the confidence and permit the vulnerability in themselves to share their fears and weaknesses, or the weaknesses and challenges of the organisation in a vulnerable, straightforward way. Revealing fears and your weaknesses is a skill that needs to be carefully developed in leaders. To stand up at a staff meeting and proceed to spend 30 minutes exposing all the weaknesses and fears you have in relation to the organisation and its direction, and then to say “thanks for listening” and sit down again will obviously not build much trust and credibility in your leadership.
Let me use an example to illustrate how vulnerability can assist your leadership. A Principal was leading a difficult staff meeting, one in which she was delivering bad news about the school’s performance and unavoidable retrenchments that had to be made. At the end of her remarks, she asked for questions from staff, who sat silently in the meeting. After a few long and awkward moments, the Principal said, “this is very uncomfortable for me. I really do want to hear what you have to say, someone please say something.” Suddenly, staff began to ask questions as they saw their leader as an anxious human being with good intentions, rather than merely an authority figure trying to avoid accountability. By being open and vulnerable, she was able to extract and address important questions that needed to be answered.
Why does vulnerability matter? Because by doing so, it is an opportunity for leaders help staff see that they understand their own fallibility. This is a deceptively endearing and trust-building trait that will strengthen your leadership, and help you thrive as a leader through the great decisions and the not so great decisions. You see, the leader that is appropriately vulnerable with staff will be communicating the message that we don’t always get it right all of the time – this builds a culture of safety and collaboration in the organisation. When people feel safe, they feel open to trust and to follow leadership. They are also more likely to work better in teams, to collaborate and step in to help their work colleagues in their areas of weakness. This results in a much safer and more harmonious workplace, and an organisation where people are values over process and where it’s OK to be wrong.
Why don’t you give vulnerability a try?