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What does it mean to be vulnerable in our leadership?

Kate Barker and Carlinde Kallianiotis

In our most recent Ginger leadership conversation, we invited senior leaders to discuss the tender topic of vulnerability. Researcher and author Brene Brown, who’s best known for her TED talk on the power of vulnerability, says that vulnerability is not only the birthplace of love, belonging, joy and creativity but also the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. These words hold particular significance in the context of leadership, as vulnerability plays a pivotal role in our quest to be engaging and empathetic leaders. 

It’s a delicate balance to strike, as we must be open and ‘human’ enough that people feel connected to us while avoiding the pitfalls of oversharing that may lead to a loss of respect and trust. To navigate this challenge, it requires a nuanced approach that allows us to be vulnerable without fearing that we might be seen as struggling or inadequate for the job at hand.

We invited our participants to consider three important questions:

  1. What does it mean to be vulnerable in our leadership?
  2. How do we strike the right balance between being too vulnerable and not being vulnerable enough?
  3. How much vulnerability are you willing and able to handle?

While the group acknowledged that it can be scary to bring vulnerability into the workplace, they agreed that it’s important for leaders to ask for help, admit their mistakes and not be afraid to say that they don’t have all the answers.

Vulnerability is about being open and tolerant with others and offers a great opportunity for leaders to build trust and show empathy. It’s about being willing to share and show emotions – but when does that enter into ‘too much’ territory? Can you be vulnerable and in command? 

Depending on the culture in which you operate, vulnerability might hinder or enhance your prospects of promotion. The difficulty comes when the word is interpreted negatively as weakness, not being professional, being ‘too soft’ or being unable to handle pressure.

Vulnerability can mean doing something you don’t really know how to do, or saying or doing something that may not be popular. It’s about accepting imperfection – we’re human, we make mistakes.

We need leaders who don’t try to pretend or prove that they’re perfect and have it all sorted. We need leaders who are willing to be seen as they are – perfectly imperfect, without putting on a front. We need leaders who can create an environment in which others feel able to do the same. 

Older generations still tend to hide behind professional facades and feel the need to keep it together at work while younger generations don’t feel the same need to prove themselves. Maybe more experienced people need to unlearn this protective behaviour and realise it’s OK to say, “I don’t have the answer, I’ll come back to you.”

The vexed question of vulnerability versus oversharing came up and everyone agreed that even in these post-Covid times where the lines between work and personal lives have become blurred, oversharing is not desirable. Yes, people want to see people and not job titles, but it’s important to establish boundaries. Vulnerability is definitely not about airing your dirty laundry. We don’t need all the details of what’s going on behind closed doors.  It’s about knowing what to share and what not to share, and with whom. 

Gen Z tends to instinctively share more, responding to the popular idea of ‘bringing your full self to work’. But this brings its own problems – sometimes your ‘full self’ is messy and chaotic. One participant shared the example of a young colleague who cancelled a meeting because of a hangover. Everyone agreed that this is not an example of vulnerability – it’s unprofessionalism or even stupidity. We have to commit to being present at work. The way to deal with a situation like this is perhaps to say, “I really appreciate you being open and truthful but this can’t happen again.” Give them credit for stepping up but don’t reward the behaviour. In situations like this, it’s important for the individual to take personal and professional responsibility.

Another hypothesis that emerged is whether it’s easier to be vulnerable if you’ve already proved yourself and established your credibility and reputation. Maybe it’s harder at the start of your career when you’re still showing what you’re capable of. Leaders need to consider the implications of this for young starters. It also begs the question, are you able to show vulnerability because you have underlying confidence? Perhaps vulnerability is actually a sign of self-assurance and therefore quite the opposite of weakness. 

Everyone needs a safe space in which to be vulnerable. You need to trust everyone in that space and have a firm sense of psychological safety. That’s how you create empathy on all sides and help people deliver their work without undue pressure. And if leaders can risk being vulnerable, it gives permission for others to open up and talk about their challenges. That’s why it’s important for leaders to model a more open, friendly style of leadership so that their teams know they’re there for them in good and bad times.

In simple terms, vulnerability builds trust and confidence while messiness undermines trust and confidence.

Vulnerability can also mean bringing our emotional stories to work and being able to hear other people’s. That’s how we form meaningful connections. Becoming comfortable with sharing personal stories that have value and are in service of a message is a powerful act of leadership.

Finally, it’s important to speak from your scars, not your wounds. If it’s too raw and you’re not OK, don’t share it. We don’t want people to feel that we need to be rescued. The important questions to ask are:

  • Why am I sharing this?
  • What’s the purpose?
  • Who is it serving?

Always check your motive before sharing something personal. 

In summary, vulnerability is a vital aspect of leadership that helps to foster a culture in which empathy and authenticity are highly valued. However, in order to maintain respect and trust, it’s important to strike the right balance. Vulnerability shouldn’t veer into oversharing or be confused with unprofessionalism. Leaders must set boundaries and carefully choose what to share and with whom. Creating a safe space in which people can be vulnerable enables and encourages open communication and helps teams to navigate challenges. Sharing personal stories with a purpose can be a powerful leadership tool but only if you carefully consider the motive behind it. Ultimately, the power of vulnerability emerges from a position of strength and self-assurance and can be leveraged to promote trust and confidence in the workplace.

Kate Barker and Carlinde Kallianiotis

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