Vulnerability Is a Leadership Skill, Not a Weakness
Showing vulnerability is a relatable trait, not a glaring leadership weakness. It can engender trust and loyalty in leaders from those who follow them.
Business leaders ooze confidence. It’s something we as observers or followers of such leaders see everyday. Whether it’s on a quarterly earnings call with reporters and analysts, a one-on-one with a direct manager or an all-company meeting led by the chief executive officer, leaders in these situations are almost always going to try and project confidence.
Confidence in business — if not life in general — is an important skill. And in most instances, it often serves two purposes: to help inspire the leader to have conviction in their actions, and to motivate and inspire those in which they lead to trust the authority and capability of those in charge of running the company. No business can be successful without a confident leader.
However, too often it seems that, for many leaders, expressing an abundance of confidence is a façade to an equally valuable leadership character trait but one that they’re likely afraid to show: vulnerability.
Every person, let alone anyone in a leadership position, feels vulnerable at times. We all have weaknesses. Everyone is imperfect. But because we tend to place leaders on a pedestal, they don’t think it’s acceptable to show weakness. Think of the countless leadership lessons we’ve learned from military history or professional athletes. You won’t find many books in either of these genres suggesting weakness as something to be praised publically. More often than not, these books brag about a given leader’s ability to project strength, confidence and skill.
The same can be said of presidential history. Yes, one might argue that our current president exudes confidence and conviction in his authority to an extreme, but such leadership bravado to a slightly lesser extent has been celebrated throughout our country’s history of top leaders. George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan — these former presidents are often celebrated for being strong, confident leaders who rarely showed their weaknesses or vulnerabilities, even though, deep down, each possessed traits that hurt their ability to be effective leaders.
But being upfront and open with vulnerability is an important leadership trait. Being able to admit and share times of weakness, even in a public setting, is a way for leaders to earn trust from those they lead. Showing weakness and not hiding from imperfection lets others know that you as a leader are human.
To this end, being able to show confidence is an essential but easy leadership skill to portray, but being able to be open and out there with your vulnerabilities and weaknesses as a leader is equally as valuable but more difficult to achieve.
It’s even harder the higher up a leader is in the organizational food chain. Psychologist Tasha Eurich calls this phenomenon “CEO Disease.” The higher someone is on the corporate ladder, the harder it is to be self-aware, including the harder it is for a leader to want to admit their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This is partly because, as the top-ranking person in an organization, it’s more difficult for those underneath them to “speak truth to power,” she said in a video for Business Insider. As a result, the leader doesn’t get the necessary feedback on their behavior to realize what their weaknesses are in the first place.
Leaders can solve this problem in a few ways. For one, leaders need to take time to identify their vulnerabilities. And, in certain situations, they need to be comfortable admitting them. One easy way to get started is to admit when you don’t know something. CEOs or other executives often think they need to know everything about their companies and industries, and, in most instances, they do. But there are many other instances where leaders won’t know an answer to a question or problem. They should admit this and not be afraid to show it to those they lead.
It’s also important, as Eurich told Business Insider, for leaders to have a trusted adviser or coach who is able to provide them with candid feedback on their weaknesses. This will help leaders become more self-aware and less insulated.
Most of all, it’s important for leaders to be unafraid to showcase their vulnerabilities in public. To be sure, there are plenty of situations where going out of the way to project weakness isn’t a good thing, but there are also many instances where admitting vulnerability will help engender trust and buy-in among those they lead. After all, showing vulnerability is relatable; it shows that, as an executive, you’re human, not simply some monolithic, mahogany-desk-sitting robot.
Remember: it’s easy to project confidence. Most people expect that from leaders and are conditioned to screen for leaders who seem to be overly confident. It’s far more difficult — and gutsy — to show vulnerability or weakness.
Leaders who are able to do that won’t be chided as bad leaders but will be viewed as the kind that others should enthusiastically follow.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, write firstname.lastname@example.org.