Vulnerability in Leadership: A Powerful Ingredient For Success

vulnerability in leadership

Some years ago, there was a young man participating in an Accelerated Leadership Program (ALP) cohort at Fox. This individual had a large presence, and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind during group discussions.

His manner of communicating, however, led many fellow cohort members to feel somewhat intimidated. Their complaint: he was at times openly critical of others’ ideas, and was accustomed to expressing himself with sarcasm and dismissive side comments.

His teammates walked on eggshells around him, and were extremely reticent to open up or approach him for ideas, feedback, or advice.  I encouraged the members of his cohort to provide feedback to him about how the group experienced him – but no one came forward to do so. The intimidation factor was prohibitive.

The situation was complicated, and an excellent learning opportunity for everyone involved, particularly the gentleman in question. Here, front and center was a golden opportunity to lean in to vulnerability.


Vulnerability Is A Trendy Buzzword… But More Easily Discussed Than Done


What we mean by vulnerability here, is the willingness to let ourselves be seen by others; to take down the armor and the manufactured images of ourselves that we are capable of projecting. The masks we wear in order to protect ourselves from harm, real or perceived.

Since our culture trains us to compete with each other in a zero-sum manner, and strive to be perfect – being vulnerable (i.e. imperfect) can be incredibly counter-intuitive, and even frightening, for many people. Particularly those working in stressful, high stakes corporate environments.

However, the lack of vulnerability among members of work teams can impact productivity in concrete ways. The absence of trust and authentic relationships can stifle communication and can even foster resentment, blame, and unhealthy working dynamics that take a real toll on employee well-being and productivity.

Suffice it to say, that until team members begin to lean into vulnerability (usually prompted by a brave leader who is willing to express vulnerability in leadership), interpersonal relationships and connections among people aren’t likely to be what they could be. The result can be diminished workplace satisfaction and increased turnover..


Vulnerability, Initiated By You, Can Transform Your Workplace


An individual – especially a senior-level executive – who demonstrates vulnerability in leadership can have a profound impact on their employees. They will grow in trust of their leaders who let themselves and their imperfections be visible – demonstrating that they are indeed human.

It can be as simple as saying what is true for you at the beginning of a meeting. Here’s an example:


“To be honest with you, I’m not entirely sure right now about how I should approach this – what do you recommend?”


When a senior level leader couples their high-performance behaviors with vulnerability, they are likely to observe interpersonal relationships deepening across the workplace.

When people are real and authentic with each other, willing to step out and express themselves, and let themselves be seen by others, the foundation exists for a robustly trusting, open and collaborative working environment.

In other words, vulnerability is simply having the courage to be yourself.


The Young Man Leans Into Vulnerability


The young man in the ALP cohort had no awareness of how his behavior was influencing the team environment, and even his own prospects for greater success. While I typically encourage members of the programs to confront their own issues, I also ask myself what steps I can take to create program momentum.

So I invited him out to coffee.

Upon sitting down, he opened up to me about difficulties he was experiencing at home on the family front, which had been contributing to stress on the job. Having established rapport, I related to him some of the feedback regarding his behavior that his fellow cohort members had expressed.

It is never easy to receive feedback, and to this man’s credit, he listened and took the feedback in. He deeply reflected on how his behavior had affected the group, and how team members’ perception of him could be affecting his own career and experience of the workplace.

He returned to the group, and within a short period of time was like a man transformed. He stopped with the sarcasm and side talk. Instead, he took to soliciting others’ opinions and ideas, including everyone in the conversation, and generally supporting and collaborating with his teammates.

Within this short period, this man became one of the most trusted and liked members of the group. People regularly came to him for his advice, input, or just to have a sounding board for problems they were working through.

He had not acquired some new strategic competency, nor had he deployed a new tactic… he simply let his guard down and began interacting with sincerity and compassion. And it transformed the entire team.

This gentleman’s story is a living testament not only to the power of applied vulnerability in leadership, but also to the idea that none of us require permission or “safety” as a precondition for coming out of our shell and letting others see us. In fact, leading with vulnerability is one of the most potent expressions of high performance leadership, and an effective catalyst to developing an open, trusting, and collaborative work environment – and leading the way to successful outcomes in the marketplace.


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