The image of a wise leader pervades popular media, but real-life managers, executives and founders rarely know everything. In fact, people who pretend to have all the answers end up fostering distrust among their colleagues. Instead, successful leaders mentor others by modeling vulnerability-based leadership.
I vividly recall the first time I embraced vulnerability in leadership. I had just moved back to Europe because I thought our office there was about to go out of business. We had lost several key players within a short time span, and despite remarkable growth over five years, the company was on unsteady ground.
During one of my first team talks, I choked up. Being emotional in front of a group of employees felt raw… foreign. But everyone viewed my honesty and openness as strengths. They knew that I wouldn’t lie to them if things weren’t OK. And the business improved.
Integrating Vulnerability and Leadership
You might not like the thought of showing your emotional side. Hesitation to open up is normal, even among those who believe in the importance of vulnerability in leadership. Being open doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
Exhibiting vulnerability requires high degrees of emotional intelligence, self-awareness and humility, so you’ll need to be comfortable admitting mistakes and depending on your teammates. But if you model this leadership style, you’ll reap the benefits of an inspired and innovative workforce.
Employees working for approachable, genuine bosses feel empowered to explore creative solutions. They don’t worry about whether their ideas are too big or too foolish because they’ve seen that it’s OK to make mistakes. This freedom fuels incredible loyalty and production, which contributes to the company’s overall vision and goals.
Another benefit to vulnerability in leadership is the psychological safety it promotes. During uncertain times or crises, teams led by vulnerable leaders feel more grounded and able to cope. As Harvard professor Amy Edmondson notes, leaders who exhibit appropriate candor cultivate work cultures in which employees don’t cut corners, people respectfully speak their minds, and everyone belongs. In other words, vulnerable leadership encourages teams to actively think and participate because they know they aren’t replaceable cogs.
Practicing the Art of Vulnerability-Based Leadership
Want to know how you can leverage the cycle of vulnerability in leadership? Follow these steps to nurture your emotional intelligence and give your organization an authenticity infusion:
1. Say what you’re feeling, not what you think people want to hear.
Has a recent setback scared you? Tell your team. It’s likely that they feel the same way. By admitting your anxiety, you put yourself on the same playing field as your colleagues. Follow up by determinedly saying, “Here’s how we’re going to deal with our fear.”
After that, everyone can brainstorm next steps together. For instance, you might initiate a team-based crowdsourcing session that urges everyone to catastrophize—but only for a moment. List the worst possible scenarios, then evaluate the likeliness of each calamity. Talking rationally about what’s most likely to happen helps bring people out of fight-or-flight mode.
Remember that this exercise works best when you name the source of your uneasiness and then follow it with an action plan. You don’t need to have the answers; just be passionate, motivated and vocal about your desire to move ahead as a team.
2. Talk about yourself and the experiences that shaped you.
Have you clung to the idea that your personal life is off limits to the team? Don’t act mysterious; talk about past challenges that shaped you. For example, I skipped third grade and was bullied until I graduated from high school. The effect was a lifelong struggle with low self-esteem. To this day, I still sometimes question myself because of what happened when I was 8 years old.
Of course, I haven’t wallowed in my lack of confidence. I’m learning from my past and working on my own personal development. The point of opening up about your individual challenges and weaknesses isn’t to make people feel sorry for you—it’s to illustrate your humanness and show your team that growing takes time and effort.
If the thought of spilling your heart out makes you uncomfortable, start with mentioning what you do outside of work. You don’t have to go into detail, but it’ll help to open up now and then. Try chatting about self-improvement activities like taking guitar lessons or reading self-help books. Aim to bring employees into the first ring of your inner circle.
3. Ask for help.
Do you delegate? Be careful with your language. Saying “please do this” sounds different from “could you help me with this?” The former is a command, whereas the latter invites participation and respects the other person’s abilities.
Although it seems like a small difference, switching your verbiage to requesting, not demanding, assistance changes your co-workers’ mindsets. They’ll see their tasks as important, not menial. Plus, tomorrow’s leaders will mimic your vulnerable, sincere approach.
Along these lines, be sure that if you ask for assistance, you accept it gracefully and thoughtfully. Let’s say you have a troublesome project that you can’t figure out. Explain what you’ve done so far, and then request a teammate’s help. They can bring a fresh perspective and more brainpower to the problem. When your colleague returns with potential solutions, listen with legitimate interest and appreciation. Even if you can’t use any of the solutions immediately, you might be able to later.
The importance of vulnerability in leadership cannot be overstressed. You’ll be amazed at how letting go without losing ground can reshape and re-energize your team.
Photo by @criene/Twenty20.com
Krister Ungerböck is the founder of the global Talk SHIFT movement. He’s a sought-after leadership communication speaker, award-winning CEO, and author. He’s been featured in national publications such as NPR, Forbes, Inc. and Entrepreneur for his fresh perspective on leadership, business growth, emotional intelligence, and employee engagement. Talk SHIFTs are simple, powerful, and practical changes to our words that can transform frustrating communication at work and at home. Talk SHIFTs adapt best practices from the relationship research world to create great leaders — while applying the best thinking from the business leadership world to create great families.