Vulnerability has been viewed as a liability for leaders and in business, a weakness. Leaders attempt to hide their vulnerability. You play games. You act tough. You present sensitive enough yet remain guarded enough to conceal the depth of your insecurities. You think this makes you look more stable. Perhaps, more attractive. You fear that your vulnerabilities will turn others off, and they will see your vulnerabilities as weaknesses.
Let me share with you how vulnerability is a key factor in a business leaders’ success.
Bring your whole self into work.
In Sheryl Sandberg’s Harvard Business School speech, she stressed that people need to “bring your whole self into work.” Drop the professional facades, and convey vulnerability to better connect with people. In the book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, Sandberg made it known to the world the grief she experienced losing her husband and, in the process, provided a significant leadership lesson — there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable as a leader.
Vulnerability is a powerful ally that helps leaders gain the cooperation necessary to get things done in the workplace. When leaders exude a quiet confidence, they are not afraid to show a level of vulnerability. By exposing their uncertainty, people want to pull together and figure out the challenge. When imposing a new direction, acknowledging that the path forward isn’t clear creates an environment where a “we-centric” culture is fostered.
Alex Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit, promotes making vulnerability a cultural reality in business and says it should start with the founders. If leaders don’t tolerate vulnerability as individuals, it won’t become an operating principle for others. Sharing your leadership experiences allows people to seek progress rather than perfection.
Vulnerability is the key to building phenomenal teams. In the fable The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni writes that the strongest people in life are often the ones who are comfortable saying “I don’t know.” When people are unable to show their vulnerabilities and be open with one another, there is an absence of trust. Defensive behaviors run rife, people are reluctant to ask for assistance, and people’s energy and time are wasted. When people can share their experiences, are clear of the team’s standards and hold themselves accountable, teams succeed.
Neuroscience of trust.
Neuroscience tells us that vulnerability is an important leadership attribute as humans are wired to help each other. In the article The Neuroscience of Trust, Paul J. Zak explains that when individuals ask for help, oxytocin levels of the person receiving the request increases. Subsequently, when a person demonstrates a level of vulnerability, others are socially inclined to assist.
Vulnerability is not for the faint of heart.
Despite the perceptions of weakness, vulnerability has been seen with a new lens when it comes to leadership. Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, argues that a vulnerable leader faces the fear of an uncertain future with an open heart and a willingness to experience the roller coaster. Brown says it best — “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.”
What can lobsters teach us about vulnerability.
Lobsters can teach us a lot about vulnerability. Lobsters need to shed their shell to grow. If the shell is removed, they will be smothered. Their outer layer softens, and they back out of their shells leaving everything behind. Completely exposed and vulnerable, they are forced to find safety behind ocean rocks. Moments of our own exposure feel like this — get crushed or grow.
In business, vulnerability is your strength. It is no secret in business, women need to work even harder and smarter to establish themselves. What can happen is that this toughness can turn into armor of judgement, fear and distance. Who hasn’t paused to think whether they should really share their latest struggle out of worry that somehow the truth would expose you as a fraud? Talking about the falls and trips that inevitably happen in the business world isn’t easy to talk about and can leave you feeling naked.
Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, writes more than 400 letters each year to the parents of her senior executives. The letters display a level of gratitude to the parents. Nooyi recognizes the parents of great leaders and employees as they rarely receive recognition for the role in raising their children to create success.
Partnership: Vulnerability and courage.
Leader vulnerability and courage go hand in hand. People calling leaders courageous are often moving towards negative feedback or problems, asking for and accepting help, admitting they don’t know it all, apologizing publicly and showing emotions like sadness or fear. Throughout my corporate career and as a business leader, l experienced many leaders, including myself, avoid these displays of vulnerability like the plague. People fear that they will look weak, people will respect them less or some will be less likely to work hard for them. The whole notion of a leader needs updating. It’s time for leaders to be truly human.