Leading with Vulnerability

What comes to your mind when you hear ‘vulnerability’? Being exposed to the possibility of being harmed or attacked? Feeling emotional or weak? Going into defence mode? Or the need to fight to win? These are all definitions coming up when we search vulnerability. But actually, vulnerability is strength.

We perceive vulnerability widely as a weakness or being exposed to a threat. If conventional wisdom holds that it is difficult to lead or negotiate or make demands from a position of perceived weakness, why is vulnerability seen as a strength and leadership skill? Let’s bust the myth:

Vulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is strength.

“Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without. Vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state.” – David Whyte

Everyone feels vulnerable at some stage, especially in our younger years where we automatically put up armour to protect ourselves from perceived threats. It’s a neurological reaction where our brain protects us against a perceived threat, and we move into fight or flight mode. That mechanism is great for keeping us safe but can be in the way when we are not physically in danger. Our brain can’t differentiate between a sabre-toothed tiger and a shitty email from our boss.

For example, when people become defensive, they protect themselves by crossing their arms, arguing their point of view or retreating. Or when our status or ego is hurt, when we get criticised or we feel our position is challenged, we might overcompensate with what we feel naturally comfortable with (being argumentative, using our intellect or our position of authority).

As we grow more aware, being vulnerable is not so much about fear. It’s about realising that we have a choice how we react to perceived threats and fear. But, because vulnerability is seen as a weakness, we often ignore or suppress it.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” – Brene Brown

What it looks like when vulnerability is absent:

In work cultures where vulnerability is absent, you observe people paying lip service to authority, people driven by ego, chest beating and bravado. Just consider how politicians like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the virus and displayed fearless bravado and put others at risk. As a contrast you have candid and data driven approaches by leaders like Sanna Marin and Jacinda Ardern saving thousands of lives and mitigating the economic damage to NZ and Finland.

When vulnerability is present:

You will witness more trust and authenticity from leaders. People have better conversations as they feel free to discuss uncomfortable issues and speak up. It invites debate and confidence in challenging the status quo and presenting ideas. In turn this creates increased innovation and collaboration. In workplace cultures where vulnerability is encouraged, people have the opportunity to build more effective and authentic relationships and connections with the result of increased productivity and staff retention.

How to Lead with Vulnerability:

It starts with awareness. In leadership, as in life, we face vulnerability in the context of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Being vulnerable is being aware of what’s happening and having the courage to show up, even if we can’t predict the outcome or we don’t have all the answers. (from Brene Brown). It’s about realising that we have a choice how we react to our fear and the armour we put up. Showing up with vulnerability is having the courage to letting our guard down, the courage to accept that don’t know it all, acknowledging our mistakes and recognising that asking for help in itself is a strength.

Here are my strategies to Lead with Vulnerability:

  1. Awareness. Look in inward and recognise how you react to fear and realise that you have a choice. Showing up with vulnerability is not being weak, it’s being authentic, showing up in times of uncertainty and letting your guard down.
  2. Self-disclosure. People who know you trust you. If we want people to trust us and we want to encourage a culture of vulnerability, we have to share who we are, our fears, stories and challenges. It’s not about sharing every personal aspect of our lives but we need to let our guard down and share our reasons for decision making, what we don’t know, what motivates us and our fears. Check out my earlier blog about self-disclosure: https://www.intactteams.com/building-trust-through-self-disclosure-and-feedback/
  3. Get outside your comfort zone. Embrace conflict even if it’s uncomfortable
    It requires to step out of your comfort zone and risk the emotional exposure that comes with embracing it. Vulnerability in such situations is the uncertainty of the outcome, risk of displeasing others and the fear that we will make matters worse.
  4. Don’t go it alone. No one expects you to go it alone, solve everything by yourself. Being vulnerable means asking for support. It actually creates camaraderie in your team.
  5. Ask for help. Asking ‘Can you help me with this?’ is not a sign of weakness. It’s vulnerability. Research by Paul J Zak shows that asking for help build trust. In fact, he describes a leader as a secure leader who involves people to reach goals: https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust
  6. Admit mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Admitting when we are wrong or make a mistake builds trust. In a culture with vulnerability people learn from their mistakes and grow. It shifts our focus form hiding mistakes to finding solutions and builds a growth mindset culture.
  7. Share your fears. Sharing your fears shows that you are human. Admitting that something scares us doesn’t make us weak, it creates a culture where it is safe for others to let their guard down. It doesn’t mean we don’t work on finding solutions. It means we create cultures where no armour is necessary.
  8. Foster psychologically safe cultures. When you foster a culture of psychological safety, you proactively create a space for team members to feel safe sharing ideas, feedback and generally be themselves in the workplace. Check out my earlier blog: https://www.intactteams.com/psychological-safety-for-high-performance-teams/
  9. Lead with humour. It’s ok to have fears. It’s also ok to laugh. Leadership always seems so serious. Bring in some humour, but not only on someone else’s cost. I know there are cultural layers to humour, and I am sure you have a feel for what works. Here in Australia, a bit of self-deprecating humour goes a long way to build trust and show vulnerability.

I encourage you to change the notion of vulnerability in your teams. When your people accept vulnerability as a strength, they stop wasting time to protecting themselves but they will show up as their authentic selves.

If you want to work with me, email me info@intactteas.com

Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert