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The Strange Paradox with Vulnerability

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Some of the biggest challenges to leading with vulnerability are the structures around us that project the perfect ideal. This can be our own immune systems that we develop to protect our sense of self or the social construct of our organisations that fuel our shared assumptions about leadership. We must change the narrative that describes vulnerability as a sign of weakness. Whilst in professional circles it is good to project an image of a leader who is at the top of their game, has all the answers and is considered on every occasion, it can leave you chasing an unattainable reality. If you are seen as the all-knowing leader you run the risk of discouraging those you lead from speaking up and offering opinions as they may feel they are not able to live up to the image you project.  Sometimes allowing those you lead in so they can get to know other aspects of your personality builds trust and develops culture. It’s reassuring for those you lead to know that you too have days when you are not always the highly polished leader you appear to be.

It’s reassuring for those you lead to know that you too have days when you are not always the highly polished leader you appear to be.

Unfortunately it’s been built into our DNA that leaders are strong, bold and all knowing. Our leaders are placed on pedestals and from that vantage point it’s not a widely accepted position to show any form of weakness or uncertainty.  Whilst there has been a volume of research conducted to dispel this myth there is still that little voice inside each of us that casts enough doubt to make us pause, rethink and try to talk our way out of any situation. If there is one thing I’ve realised throughout the pandemic it’s that we’re pretty vulnerable. I’m not sure many people were able to predict the seismic shift that the pandemic has had on the world. This has really highlighted that some of us are better prepared to deal with uncertainty than others. What I’ve observed is that there are occasions when we must lead from the front and times when we must stand next to those we lead and admit our vulnerabilities.

I’m not suggesting that being vulnerable means you must fully disclose all your faults at all times. It certainly doesn’t mean that you tell those you lead all the details about everything that is happening, or that you fall on the floor, sobbing in an open display of insecurity. You have to have boundaries in your leadership. You need to be able to determine whom to share with and when. There will be certain people whom you can share with more openly than others, it’s about knowing your people and your audience.  By displaying a level of vulnerability at the right time you can create a space that feels safe for others to be vulnerable and open to learning. In doing so you establish an environment where it’s ok to share a mistake and use it as a learning opportunity whereby creating a culture that recognises that we all have things to learn, we don’t hide or cover up our mistakes we use them as learning opportunities to ensure they don’t happen again. For this to occur you’ll have to let your guard down and open up. I’ve written previously about working in the discomfort zone, a place where we have doubts, where we question our skill set and we make comparisons with others ability to perform in similar situations. It’s a scary place to be at times, especially when we open ourselves up to criticism. We must avoid the natural reaction to become defensive. In this space you may hear negative feedback from those you lead and it may feel personal. Rather than seeing the feedback as an attack, use it as a learning opportunity by asking questions and digging deeper into responses to gain a better understanding. Trying to understand why this opinion has been formed is highly valuable. Using the information to adjust where necessary demonstrates that vulnerability is a constructive behaviour and creates authentic connections with teams. Putting yourself out there sets a tone for others to follow.

Like most skills, being vulnerable may require a degree of trial and error. It will take time to find your feet and know when and what to share. There will be times when you potentially over share or even share the wrong thing and this is all part of the process. It’s always good to reflect afterwards but don’t beat yourself up, learn from each experience. If you are not sure about stepping into this space I’d encourage you to consider a few things:

Start small – Just dip your toe in the water to see how deep you want to dive in. The last thing you want to do is jump in over your head and feel like you are in too deep.

Try with a trusted colleague – Who are your trusted colleagues that you can test this with? It’s like swimming between the flags with the lifeguards on patrol. They’ll make sure that you get the experience in a safe and productive way. 

Seek to understand – Ask questions and get to the heart of the matter, actively listen, clarify and be prepared to answer difficult questions honestly. 

Be self-aware – be truthful to yourself about what is going on for you emotionally and recognise how this may influence your behaviour. Try to identify the underlying assumption that is making you feel a particular way.

Modelling vulnerability allows those you lead to do the same which helps to break down silos and the self-protective walls that exist. Keeping up barriers takes energy that can be better spent working together in an environment of collaborative transparency. If you get it right you can develop a sense of belonging that will energise those you lead to reflect on and refine their practice because they will feel safe to do so.  Nothing builds credibility like admitting that you don’t know it all. When those you lead see that you too can learn from mistakes it amplifies a learning culture. 

You’re in the position because you’ve worked hard to get there and have the attributes to fulfil the role, you don’t have to be the perfect leader on every occasion. Trust your instincts, build your credibility by leading with a level of vulnerability. Remember a courageous leader shows up no matter the situation and responds with authenticity regardless of the personal challenge that’s presented.  Vulnerability takes courage. We know that trust grows gradually, demonstrating to those you lead that you are human can only enhance trust in your leadership.  

The strange paradox with vulnerability is that when we see others display it we believe they’re courageous, yet displaying it ourselves is like shining a spotlight on our own inadequacies. Showing vulnerability is challenging and managing the emotions that come with being in this space can be confronting especially when we identify the chinks we have in our armour. The reality is we all have weaknesses and admitting this will require a level of courage that may make some of us feel uncomfortable. If you’ve been in leadership long enough you will know that it’s inevitable that your team will come to the realisation that you don’t have all the answers. Understanding this and accepting it is more important than trying to keep up the illusion that we’re infallible. Shifting the language from I have all the answers to I want to get the right ones shows you are open to learning and have a level of maturity in your leadership. Strategically facing your challenges by taking advice and seeking support rather than racing towards the solution speaks volume of your ability to lead. There is a vast difference between being courageous and fearless. The fearless leader charges towards danger whereas the courageous leader weighs up all the evidence and makes an informed decision.


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