Vulnerability in Leadership: Why Being Human is Good

Vulnerability in Leadership- Why Being Human is Good Deepti Sheth
We can feel vulnerable walking alone down a dark street at night, in a group of toxic people, or even dealing with difficult emotions.

Instinctively, none of us loves Vulnerability and wants to be vulnerable. Not surprising, considering the word comes from the Latin ‘vulnerare’ meaning ‘to wound, hurt or maim.’ We can feel vulnerable walking alone down a dark street at night, in a group of toxic people, or even dealing with difficult emotions.

Vulnerability is something internal, to be dealt with personally, and not something we can bring to work, right? There is a widely held assumption that showing weakness will demote us from the front of the pack, which admitting we can make mistakes means we are somehow not built for the top. In a world where leaders are often expected to be infallible, vulnerability can seem like a risky proposition, right?

Wrong. An organisation that disregards its vulnerability ends up with scapegoating, and a culture of blame that leaves it drained of energy and enthusiasm. A workplace where we people cannot make mistakes is corrosive and festers with egoism. In today’s BANI world “brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and incomprehensible”, the concept of vulnerability may seem counterintuitive to success.

At its core, “Vulnerability” is the willingness to expose our true selves, flaws, and all, to others. It is about shedding the masks we wear and tearing down the walls we have built to protect ourselves. Authentic and genuine connections thrive in an atmosphere of vulnerability, where individuals feel psychologically safe.

Leaders live in a fishbowl. Employees scrutinize what leaders say and do, and the values they demonstrate every day. It is not a wonder that most leaders put up a pretense, and rarely let their guard down.

But vulnerability is not just a feel-good buzzword – it is also a strategic imperative. Leaders who can adapt and pivot quickly are the ones who will succeed.

And vulnerability in leadership, paradoxically, can be the key to that agility. By being willing to admit when they don’t have all the answers, leaders can create a culture of experimentation and learning, where failure is not stigmatized but seen as an opportunity for growth.

No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. It is that simple… If you are not willing to fail, you cannot innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.” Thought Leader, Professor Brené Brown

Vulnerability in the workplace could mean participating in a tough conversation, having a different viewpoint from your team about a project or decision, admitting that you are struggling, providing difficult feedback to a direct report or colleague, or sharing the struggles you are having outside of work.

As a business leader, it is easy to get tied up in all things ‘work’ and lose sight of what is going on around you. Remember to keep it casual from time to time and engage your staff in conversation outside of work. For example, join in when you hear your team discussing weekend plans.

Or make it a point to ask some personal questions during your one-on-one meetings with employees. And if you notice an employee who seems particularly down or stressed, extend an olive branch, and keep the link of communication open.

Ways Leaders Can Ace Vulnerability in the Workplace

  • Recognize When Someone Is Being Vulnerable with You – How do you know when a work colleague is opening up and speaking their truth? The key is to actively listen, and then respond to what they have shared rather than shy away from their vulnerability. If we stay in that conversation from a place of empathy, where we are curious, we let them know I am sticking with you, and I want to stay connected.
  • Commit To Coaching – It is not always about throwing yourself to the wolves during a public display—at least not at first. One of the safest ways for leaders to express themselves is through a one-to-one coaching relationship. That is where it is important that you share some of your stories, and mistakes you made. That builds a deeper connection.
  • Lead by Example – Team members are more likely to feel comfortable expressing themselves when their leader shares personal stories and experiences first. Not only does this forge team bonds, but it also serves as an example of how to be vulnerable in the workplace.
  • Take Care with What You Share – “Think before you speak” is a critical motto when practicing vulnerability in the workplace. How to joke around and create an environment where others feel comfortable is essential—but not if it goes too far. ‍You need to be careful that it does not become toxic, offensive, or frivolous.
  • Do not Play Victim – Vulnerability in leadership is not about burdening your team with your managerial problems. The minute a leader is stressed, they must let everyone know that they are in a bad mood, and that they are a victim. Avoid making it all about yourself and creating a toxic atmosphere. 

Why embracing vulnerability as a leader will benefit you?

  • Makes You Relatable – for someone to be a true leader, the organization needs to look up to them and be inspired, but equally important is for people to relate to the leader.
  • Driving Trust – People trust authentic people. Without trust, employees do not stay at companies for long and customers do not remain loyal advocates. Vulnerability and keeping life “real” drives trust and thus is an essential component of leadership success.
  • Demonstrating Strength of Character – Being a leader means taking responsibility, for others and us. A good leader can be a role model if they can admit mistakes, take criticism, show their vulnerability, and do it all in stride.
  • Inspiring Creativity – Leaders who embrace their vulnerabilities, whether it is making a mistake or struggling with the solution to a problem, inspire cultures of creativity and increased contribution. It gives employees room to relax and pursue knowledge and professional growth in a supportive environment, which enhances productivity and loyalty.
  • Transforming You into A Modern Leader – A tactical manager may hide behind infallible authority, but a great leader opens themself up, shows vulnerability, and transforms into the kind of modern leader that people love to work for and work with.
  • Enabling Continued Growth – Not only does vulnerability make you seem more human and approachable to your team, but being vulnerable will allow you to open yourself to options and solutions that may not otherwise be visible.
  • Encouraging Psychological Safety – Teams that feel psychologically safe perform better than those that do not. A vulnerable leader opens doors for others to do the same and can help build a culture of trust critical for high-performing teams.
  • Connecting Through Authenticity – Being a true leader does not require you to be right always. Authenticity will motivate teams and improve your chances for success.
  • Enabling Shared Ownership – No leader is infallible. Accepting this fact leads to a more open company culture, where promising ideas can come from everyone. When team members recognize that their own input and leadership are valued, it fosters a sense of shared ownership over the success of the organization.
  • Inviting Others to Help – Leaders who come across as being always right and infallible run the risk of isolating themselves and losing touch with their workforce. Vulnerable leaders invite others, to help and contribute.
  • Building Stronger Teams – Being vulnerable does not mean being emotional. You can admit to not having all the answers when you need help, and this builds trust between you and your team and can create some of the most powerful connections.

Gone are the days when leaders were expected to be infallible. As the inspirational speaker and author Simon Sinek states, “A leader must be human first and foremost.

Today, the crown of leadership is adorned with the jewels of vulnerability and a culture of collective resilience. Brené Brown states “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the centre, of meaningful human experiences.”


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