As counterintuitive as it may seem, great leadership relies upon vulnerability. We usually think of vulnerability as a weakness, but emotional vulnerability is, as best-selling author and professor of social work Brené Brown writes, “the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Does that make vulnerability sound more appealing? To be vulnerable takes courage and honesty, two qualities usually found in great leaders.
But vulnerability doesn’t come easily for most of us, especially in the work environment. To be vulnerable is to be willing to feel uncomfortable emotions that we’d probably prefer to avoid. It also requires listening carefully and tapping into how others feel. And then—here’s the hardest part—we need to feel what they feel.
We know what you’re thinking: “Wait a minute. That’s empathy!” And you’re right. Vulnerability is closely tied to empathy. Without vulnerability we can’t access our own experiences that allow us to be empathic, and we also can’t share important personal moments so that others can relate to us.
Today, thanks to technology, we have enormous global reach (and, hence, greater responsibility) than ever before. In a matter of seconds, someone on the other side of the world can read an email or a Tweet. In a recent column in The Guardian—titled “Can the Internet Actually Be an Empathy Boot Camp?”—columnist Jess Zimmerman argues that the Internet should force us to consider more people’s needs more deeply. She writes, “…you are often shouting to your intended listeners as they stand in a thick, noisy crowd. You may be appealing directly to their interests and ambitions, but if their neighbor disagrees, you could still face pushback, complaints or even abuse. The potential for criticism from unexpected parties is, on the whole, positive—a boot camp in radical empathy, one that makes it ever more difficult to hide behind provincialism as an excuse for insensitivity.”
Digital connections are only a small part of it. Vulnerability is especially important in face-to-face relationships. People may follow directions without question, but if you can explain the rationale behind a directive, you’ll earn their respect and achieve higher performance from your team. As Jonathan Harris, artist and co-founder of the online storytelling repository Cowbird, puts it, “If you don’t know how a principle came to exist, you’ll never adopt it as your own.” Sharing your own experiences shows how you’ve created your values or methods, and being willing and able to expose yourself demonstrates that you’re a thoughtful human, as opposed to an unapproachable dictator.
This kind of vulnerability is an integral part of building trust. We’re not talking about crazy confessions or over sharing. Vulnerability in leaders is thoughtful, even strategic, and creates connections and fosters trust.
Author, scholar and researcher Brené Brown describes vulnerability and its importance in this short video, demonstrating how closely innovation and creativity in the workplace are linked to it.
A great leader demonstrates an inexhaustible list of attributes: authenticity, honesty, openness, decisiveness, conscientiousness, flexibility, patience, clear communication, etc. Vulnerability lies at the heart of each trait.