The Paradox of Leadership Vulnerability

The willingness to display vulnerability is a leadership characteristic that has troubled a number of leaders I’ve coached, and likely many leaders in general. This is probably true for a number of reasons. First, the concept of vulnerability as a leadership characteristic runs contrary to many commonly-held perceptions about what leadership is and isn’t, most notably the perception that vulnerability is synonymous with weakness. Secondly, vulnerability is an attribute many adult men today either were taught is undesirable and/or did not have modeled for them in their youth. Furthermore, I’ve met many female leaders over the years who believed, or indicated they had been taught, that to succeed as a leader they should follow men’s leads and eschew vulnerability.

So why should a leader consider adding the ability to demonstrate vulnerability to their skill set? What benefit can be derived from this seemingly contraindicated attribute, and how can someone become a stronger leader by embracing a characteristic that seems to indicate weakness, not strength?

First, ask yourself, what truly constitutes leadership? Well, the first requirement is pretty obvious: you’ve got to have followers. And why do followers follow? Is it because of some altruistic commitment to a cause, or perhaps the charismatic persuasions of someone with power? Not at all. Simply put, followers ultimately follow because they believe to do so will move them in the general direction of fulfilling a personal want or need—some goal, dream, or personal objective. A century of behavioral research indicates that generally, all conscious, rational behavior is intrinsically motivated towards fulfillment of some need, and followership is no different.

So what is it about a “wannabe” leader’s willingness to display vulnerability, or to take it a step further, to actually be vulnerable, that inspires a potential follower’s confidence that they will even get their needs met, much less their dreams fulfilled? Wouldn’t “weakness” undermine the follower’s confidence?

Ultimately, I believe the human element inspires and creates connection with others. When leaders are willing to show up authentically, and others see all their foibles, their strengths, and their weaknesses, followers see them as more human and relatable. Followers see in the leader someone they can trust to care about them and help fulfill their needs, just as the followers are asked to commit to helping the leader fulfill the organization’s needs in return.

There are some relatively simple, although not necessarily easy, ways leaders can show vulnerability. For starters, leaders can become willing to use three simple words: “I don’t know.” I don’t know. It seems like such an easy phrase to say. But many leaders find it difficult to admit they don’t know something, in spite of the fact that leaders don’t have to have all the answers all the time—really! When people do expect leaders to have all the answers all the time, it’s likely only because they’ve been trained as such by leaders who seem to always have an answer for everything. Ironically, this condition often also has the unintended effect of stopping followers from thinking for themselves!

Another difficult but imperative exercise in leadership vulnerability is using the sentence, “I was wrong.” One of the recurring bits on the popular 70’s TV show Happy Days was Fonzie’s inability to say these words. Over the course of human history, an unfortunate and misguided belief has developed: that true leaders are infallible, super-human, and that they simply shouldn’t make mistakes. Granted, leaders that make a lot of mistakes probably (and rightfully) won’t retain their leadership roles for very long. But an occasional, honest confession of a leader’s missteps undeniably helps to strengthen their human connection with others, making them a more attractive leader to follow.

Leaders could also benefit from admitting to mistakes in hiring decisions, particularly by doing so sooner rather than later. The costs of unsuccessful hiring choices has been well documented by modern business researchers, and are a testament to the benefits of exercising extreme patience during the search process. But it’s when no one will own up to the mistake (and invariably, that responsibility lies at the top of the organization) that such mistakes are commonly allowed to go uncorrected, sometimes for years! And all it takes to correct the mistake is for a leader to say, “We made a mistake; this person is simply not a good fit for us.”

Perhaps the most difficult of all vulnerabilities for a leader to practice is to own up to their emotions in the face of adversity—to be willing to say, “We are in serious trouble, and yes, I’m worried/afraid/anxious.” Such honesty usually reflects what many others are already feeling. However, such vulnerability should not be mistaken for a lack of courage. When a leader has the authenticity to own their emotions in times of trouble, they must also have the courage and presence of mind to clearly articulate what the organization’s response will be in the face of the acknowledged adversity. A leader’s primary responsibility is communicating a strong sense of organizational direction and movement; demonstration of vulnerability does not relieve the leader of this responsibility. Requisite courage in such circumstances is not the absence of fear; it’s rising to a challenge in the face of it.

The practice of vulnerability is not easily employed. For many leaders, it’s implemented awkwardly and uncomfortably. But a leader’s willingness to illustrate their humanity and to show themselves authentically and transparently pays dividends in the form of increased followership for years to come. It does become easier with time. Do YOU have the courage to be vulnerable?

For this week: Watch for opportunities to practice vulnerability by admitting when you don’t know something or made a mistake. How do you feel when you are faced with these opportunities? Challenge yourself to become more comfortable with being authentic and transparent in a variety of situations.