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Is Vulnerability a Key Trait in a Leader’s Make-Up?

OCTOBER 17, 2014 by DR. JON WARNER in 


When you take a quick survey of how most people respond when they are asked to describe a strong leader they will often say things like “strong”, “directive”, “self-confident”, “persistent”, “organized”, “power-broker”, “influencer”, “tenacious” and “goal-driven” etc. All of these suggest that a leader is fairly certain about what to do and is willing and able to direct people, as firmly as necessary. But these perceptions may not reflect reality very closely at all and in this article we will explore another important leadership trait that rarely gets any mention and yet can be one of the most critical as a determinant of long term success – it’s the willingness of a leader to be vulnerable.

Being vulnerable may seem counter-intuitive with respect to leadership as this characteristic suggests being exposed, perhaps uncertain and rather sensitive. But far from being problematic we may find that being vulnerable, at least some of the time, may actually lend strength and credibility to a leader and it is therefore useful to look at why this is likely to be the case.

Being vulnerable at its heart means being open, even if it’s to criticism or attack. In the context of leadership this means that a more vulnerable leader is likely to give people the confidence to speak up and share their real views even when they are contrary to those of the leader or even suggest that the leader is wrong, or off-track. This means that the vulnerable leader is likely to get better quality and real information and feedback from others upon which they can reflect and then adjust strategies when appropriate.

Going along with openness, authenticity is another key part of being vulnerable or genuinely speaking your mind or being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character. Once again, in the context of leadership this means that a more vulnerable leader is likely to appear genuine and real to the team, even when the information given to others or his or her opinion is not necessarily popular.

Armed with as much openness and authenticity as possible the positively vulnerable leader “leans” into the future (as opposed to leaning backwards in defense). This means accepting that the future may present new and different challenges that require new approaches and “facing up” to this fact. In other words, the leader welcomes or leans into the future challenges even though he or she may feel just as uncertain or concerned as others.

As a leader becomes more willing to be vulnerable, it becomes possible and helpful to both show emotions and to feel greater compassion for others. Both of these steps demand considerable personal courage but can be extremely powerful in the mind of others when authentically displayed. This does not necessarily mean showing the extremes of our emotions but does involve making sure that what we truly feel is not hidden or masked from others (or even ourselves).

All of the above, which may be a slow and progressive journey for most leaders, assuming that they have the courage and persistence to stay the course, will eventually lead them to make deeper connections with people and enrich the quality of many relationships. This is often best done by offering up personal experiences from time to time or telling others stories about past events in which your own willingness to be vulnerable is described (especially where this led to a better long term outcome). And this will lead to perhaps the ultimate benefit – to discover that real and authentic vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, love and higher self-esteem. This clearly makes this journey well worth pursuing.

In summary then, openness and authenticity help leaders to “lean-into” the future rather than to shy away from it. In addition, the more a leader can show genuine emotion and be compassionate whenever it is appropriate to do so, they will find that they better connect with people and build stronger, more bonded teams. Ultimately, appropriate vulnerability often leads to considerably more creativity, happiness and joy in relationships in general, which makes leadership a pleasure rather than a chore. The following list shows the progressive journey to be travelled if you want to become more vulnerable:

  • Be Open
  • Be Authentic
  • Lean into the Future
  • Have the courage to show emotion
  • Develop the ability to be compassionate
  • Discover the capacity for finding deeper connections with people
  • Recognize that vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, love and higher self-esteem