Vulnerable, authentic, transparent … a veritable Mount Rushmore of modern leadership virtues.
Our LinkedIn feeds are drowning in them.
The buzziest of buzz words.
Three different words, meaning essentially the same thing.
At this point, we all know we should lead with vulnerability.
But why? And, how exactly?
Surely, not every great leader is an approachable, self-effacing, open book – are they?
What about those mysterious, hard-edged suits I thought I admired early in my career? Were they all poor leaders?
Has everything changed? Do I need to change?
That’s what we’ll explore in today’s blog.
Whenever I try to make sense of a leadership concept, I start by reflecting on the best and worst leaders I’ve had.
Is “vulnerable” really a term I’d use to describe the best leaders I know?
What were their best attributes? Can I map those to “vulnerability”?
What about the worst leaders? Where did they rank on the vulnerability scale?
I’ve worked for two truly great leaders in my life. Two experiences, nearly twenty years apart. A span of time during which the whole world changed. What we expect in a job and a leader certainly evolved. But, despite all this change and the passage of time, these two leaders share a distinct management style I would characterize by three enviable attributes.
By any measure, these two leaders were exceptionally talented and successful, yet they shared a very humble view of their personal roles on the team. Whereas so many leaders view themselves as the critical cog in the machine, these leaders genuinely did not. Unlike most leaders, they believed deeply that the team was more important than they were and so they felt no need to elevate themselves or pretend to be anything other than who they were. I can certainly see some leadership vulnerability in that.
These great leaders were obsessed by the larger vision and mission of the team and company. They cared much more about the long-term mission than short term results or their personal reputations at any given moment. Which is to say, they felt no pull to cover up mistakes, fluff up results, or overstate their own capabilities. When a leader cares about the mission in this way, they’d rather take a hit to their own career than to put the mission in jeopardy. A ton of leadership vulnerability in this one.
When I look back on these two wonderful leaders, I recall two people who genuinely liked themselves, believed in themselves, and had a healthy self-awareness. They knew who they were and were comfortable with it. There was no need to puff, pose, or pretend to be anything other than who they were – idiosyncrasies, shortcomings and all. They liked who they were, and it made them easy to admire and follow. That’s vulnerability in leadership if i’ve ever seen it.
As it happens, I’ve also worked with some truly horrendous leaders. I’m sure you have too. So, for good measure I ran them through the same vulnerability test. I can assure you, “humble”, “mission-driven”, and “self-confident” aren’t terms I’d associate them with. More aptly, they were:
Narcissistic, and viewed themselves as the most important part of the team.
Addicted to short-term praise and willing to spin the truth to get it.
Deeply insecure, playing a cliched role of a leader vs. being authentic.
Having spent some time thinking about it this week, there’s no question in my mind that leadership vulnerability is a potential superpower. But here’s what you need to know to put it into action the right way.
One of my first conclusions when thinking about this topic was that vulnerability is likely growing in value – and possibly why you’re hearing the term so much lately. The contemporary workplace environment almost demands a high degree of vulnerability at this point for a leader to be successful for a sustained tenure. Our people simply don’t NEED to follow us anymore.
We’ve got a massive, global jobs marketplace with low unemployment, a growing reluctance by managers to terminate without cause, the quiet quitting option, and a host of other reasons not to follow a bad leader. You just can’t get people to follow you anymore if you’re a narcissistic phony.
Perhaps the most important benefit to being a vulnerable leader is that it is contagious. When your team sees you are honest, authentic, and vulnerable, they will return the favor. Vulnerability is reciprocated, which ultimately leads to growth and great performance on your team. If you are humble, mission-driven, and self-confident – your team will be too. You won’t need to worry about whether people are telling you the truth, covering up mistakes, or glossing over bad news.
Conversely, a lot of what is broken in corporations is the soul-sucking spiral of incompetent leaders pretending they know what they’re doing, inevitably followed by finger-pointing and obscuring results to preserve their reputations. In a culture of vulnerability, this does not exist.
While I’m clearly a fan of vulnerable leadership, I should note there are certain places we should not be vulnerable – we should be impregnable.
Vulnerability in vision will kill your team/company. We need to protect our vision and raise it up as a beacon to guide our people. It cannot be flexible or malleable or any of the other ‘ables. Hold firm on your vision, and lead with vulnerability within it. If your team senses that you don’t believe in the vision, it will disintegrate. Even when things get dicey, you must be impenetrable on vision. The same is true for your values. These cannot be up for debate. We should be impregnable in vision and values, but vulnerable in approach and execution.
Back to the question at hand: Vulnerable Leadership – Sappy or Superpower?
Vulnerability isn’t weakness; it’s an act of courage.
Vulnerability is liberating; it frees you and your team members to be yourselves.
Vulnerability is infectious; it leads to a culture of honesty and growth.
A leadership superpower if I’ve ever seen one.