The topic of vulnerability might be enjoying a bit of a cultural renaissance today. Thanks to Brene Brown and her body of work on the subject, decades of myths about what it means to be vulnerable and the role of vulnerability in the modern-day environment are now beginning to fade away.
Nevertheless, the act of showing vulnerability remains a challenge for most people, primarily because it’s hard to lower our defences. When it comes to leadership, though, showing vulnerability is even more crucial in determining its effectiveness. Here’s why.
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No man is an island. Interdependency is essential for the healthy functioning of any team in any context. For a team to feel and act in a mutually dependent way, they need to be comfortable being vulnerable with each other.
So many teams fall apart because one or more of its members resist co-operating out of the perception that success hinges on how well you can be a one-person army. If a team does not learn to be vulnerable with one another, they will not understand that they’re better together instead of alone.
As always, this starts with the leader. Managers who operate on the presumption of their own invulnerability vis-a-vis everyone else are likelier to alienate their subordinates and engender resentment.
To unlock your team’s full potential, you have to lead by showing your people that you need them to work with you as one towards success, instead of demanding it from them as an entitlement.
The power of vulnerability in forming strong bonds between yourself and your subordinates cannot be understated.
It is not enough to engage in armchair leadership by staying in the comforts of your corner office. The best leaders never lead from a distance. They go down into the field and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty with the messiness that accompanies bonding with their people.
This is the idea behind genba, the Japanese management philosophy that translates into “the actual place.” For leaders to be effective at all, they need to understand where their subordinates are coming from.
That requires engaging in the same processes and environments their subordinates are subject to, including being a genuine participant in the interpersonal networks that connect them.
To bring out the best in every team member, you need to know what makes your people tick. You also have to be able to cater to their needs as employees and as human beings. Without embracing the vulnerability required to foster close relationships with your people, it’s difficult to do that.
According to serial entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, the key to helping your employees to outperform themselves consistently is to show them that you’re committed to bringing more value to them than they bring to you.
The most effective leaders see leadership as a means of serving others, not the other way around. It’s hard to do this without first understanding your vulnerability as a leader.
This is what’s meant by the adage “leadership is a responsibility, not a privilege.” If you can understand that your responsibility as a leader is to cultivate your people’s growth in the long-term, you’ll make your people your highest priority.
When people recognise your willingness to open yourself up to the vulnerability that comes through serving them, they’ll naturally reciprocate by giving their best at work in every regard.
Workplace feedback frameworks that are exclusively top-down risk neglecting employee engagement and send the message that the company’s leaders see themselves as above the law.
For people to feel valued, they need to have viable avenues for making their concerns known to their leaders. This can only happen if leaders themselves understand the value of having bottom-up feedback structures, which again underscores the need for embracing vulnerability in leadership.
Leaders who aren’t afraid of showing vulnerability do not hesitate to build company cultures characterised by open communication and transparency.
On a person-to-person level, two-way feedback loops are also indispensable to individual performance. That applies to both employers and employees. Leaders need to be just as open to feedback and constructive criticism as they expect their employees to be. If people see that you’re not afraid of admitting that you’re wrong as a leader, you’ll earn their respect.
Without being willing to be vulnerable to negative feedback, real progress will remain out of reach.
Failures are inevitable; what counts is how you deal with it personally. When you take on the mantle of leadership, though, you’re additionally responsible for leading your team through their failures.
If you can’t embrace your vulnerability in moving past your personal failures, though, you won’t be able to lead others through theirs.
Embracing vulnerability in failure is not about harboring a low opinion of yourself. It’s about having the courage to accept your shortcomings. If you can’t accept that, you won’t be able to learn from your failures and work on improving yourself.
When the team is low on morale after failing, it’s the leaders who embrace vulnerability who can guide them through it. They’re the ones who will coach the team to accept it and see it as a chance for self-betterment through learning.