Showing authentic vulnerability is confident leadership.

That statement sure sounds like a paradox. Especially when you consider the formal definition of vulnerability: "the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally."

 Vulnerability has been viewed as a weakness in leaders. That belief is still out there. We need to reframe vulnerability as courageous. From the kid on the playground who stops a bully in his tracks with a “so what?” reply, to the manager who notices her team seems more connected after she's open and authentic, everyone can experience the power that confident vulnerability can bring.

Hold up, though. It’s got to be authentic

The kicker here is that vulnerability can’t be faked and for many managers, the idea of showing up at work as their authentic self presents a challenge. 

The word authentic means “original,” so on the surface, bringing your “authentic self” to your work can seem simple. “Just be yourself!” Yet, even the new intern can see the tightrope employees are expected to walk between showing up as the people they are at home and maintaining the professional boundaries that allow them to lead in the workplace. 

Some leaders would love nothing more than to show up every day as their full, complex selves. Others would rather operate in a Severance-style office, where their lives at home and work are completely separated from each other, even in their own minds. 

Neither of these options are truly authentic. Of course, there are professional boundaries that require leaders to maintain a reasonable and responsible level of respect and authority with their teams. But never sharing personal details like how your weekend was or what upcoming vacations you’re excited about can make you look aloof, if not inhuman.

Being vulnerable does come with risks. It’s possible that when we show vulnerability we may be criticized or shamed in some way. And for some people, opening up to others will always be uncomfortable. 

At Lead Belay, we think it’s a risk worth taking.

Vulnerability, a growth mindset, and trust

Demonstrating vulnerability as a leader goes hand in hand with a growth mindset and creating a cohesive team that trusts each other. By sharing mistakes (and solutions!) you’ve learned from from tough experiences, your team members will feel more comfortable taking risks, trying new things, and failing fast – that’s what a growth mindset is all about.

Vulnerability, trust, and a growth mindset can’t exist without one another. They also depend on having a psychologically safe space to grow. And the fastest way to create one is to be open and vulnerable.

Here’s an example from my personal life. Recently, I’ve been talking with my children about bullying and working on helping them feel safer coming to me with any issues they may be having at school. Rather than just telling them they can talk to me, or asking them questions they might not feel comfortable answering honestly, I tell them stories about when I was bullied in school and how I dealt with it.

That kind of vulnerability says nothing about my competency as a parent, or my ability to do my job as a father, but it creates a powerfully safe space for them to be open with me about any similar experiences they may have.

That’s the thing about confident vulnerability. It recognizes that none of us are perfect, and we’ve all experienced challenges and failures along the way. At the same time, it also holds that we are worthy, amazing, and capable of achievement.

Vulnerability creates space for innovation

Vulnerability has a direct link to courage and innovation. Courage is necessary for innovation because you need courage to take risks. Brene Brown’s definition of vulnerability in her book Daring Greatly is worth repeating in this context. She says, “Vulnerability is not weakness. I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives….When we think of times that we have felt vulnerable or emotionally exposed, we are actually recalling times of great courage.”

Courageous leaders are often the most effective leaders in the most innovative companies. 

Consider the opposite. An extremely guarded person who shows no vulnerability will spend much of their time focused on image management–maintaining and protecting the best possible image of themselves. That takes an incredible amount of energy and effort, and results in appearing disingenuous as a person. It gets in the way of relationships with others, and interferes with just plain getting stuff done–nevermind taking risks. In the case of a leader, it drains you and sets a toxic tone that your team should do the same. It can exhaust their time, spirits, resolve, and motivation.

Being in an environment where everyone is overly guarded also zaps courage. If everyone, including you, is focused on image and not showing their vulnerabilities, the chances people will throw out new ideas or strive for innovation are next to none. Truly innovative concepts often seem crazy at their inception. They often only come to life because a courageous leaders is willing to be vulnerable and open to criticism and failure. Listen to Reid Hoffman’s interview of AirBNB’s co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky for a great example of the courage to innovate. (It has some great tips on how to spur innovation too.)

Vulnerability makes effective communication possible

Vulnerability also engenders problem solving and better communication. Team members who aren’t worried about their image will come to you with issues without procrastinating. They’ll also be able to freely communicate instead of watching everything they say and write. 

An environment where innovation and communication flow freely has to start with you as a leader. Because as humans, our brains are hardwired for conformity. Our desire to fit in can prevent us from stating obvious truths. 

One of the many studies of conformity is the seminal work by Solomon Asch. He put a group of people into a room to answer questions where there was an obvious right answer. One person was the subject, and that person didn’t know that everyone else in the room was in on the experiment. For the first few questions, everyone would answer the question correctly. Then, the larger group started answering questions in obviously incorrect ways. Seventy five percent of subjects eventually also started answering incorrectly, as long as it conformed with the group.

Limits of vulnerability

As powerful as vulnerability can be, there are limits on how and what you should share as a leader. In general, we have two rules here at Lead Belay:

Don’t process your own baggage with your team.
In order to avoid breaking this rule, think about your motivation for opening up. Are you trying to dump your own insecurities and fears on your team, or create a safe environment by sharing a lesson that will lead to growth?

Don’t discuss core competencies for your job that you don’t have. If you need help finding a resource to work on a core competency you should already have as a leader, don’t talk to your team about it. That’s where mentors, managers, or other leaders — like you’ll find at Lead Belay — come in. 

Vulnerability and authentic leadership

Harvard professor and author, Bill George, defines authentic leadership as “... a style of leadership that focuses on transparent and ethical leader behavior and encourages open sharing of information needed to make decisions while accepting followers’ inputs.”

At its heart, authentic leadership is vulnerable. But it’s also different for every person. If every leader showed up in exactly the same way, following the same set of prescribed rules and guidelines, for the vast majority that would not only be difficult, but very inauthentic. 

So in trying to find your own vulnerable and authentic leadership style, first ask yourself, "Is this true to me?"

Your responsibility as a leader might mean you don’t always get to say “yes." But considering how you show up at work, using that question as a framework will help lead to your own growth and success and the growth and success of your team.

Want to dig deeper into your authenticity as a leader?

Our Belayers have found our 30-minute exercise from our Emerging Leader Ascent extremely helpful while

grappling with the paradox of demonstrating authenticity in leadership.

Download the exercise



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