The Value of Vulnerability

Vulnerability. The word alone is enough to make some of us uncomfortable. Yet, vulnerability is a necessary ingredient of any relationship of depth and value. If we recognize that effective leadership is based in relationship rather than position, then vulnerability must be a part of our character.

Historically those in leadership positions (and others) were encouraged to never show emotion. “Never let them see you sweat” was the mantra. We often learned to put up our force field in order to not feel or show any emotion.

Fortunately we have learned that leadership is not the same as dictatorship and that professionalism doesn’t require stoicism. Instead we have learned that effective leaders are those that draw people to follow. And people only follow those that they trust and respect. They will only trust and respect those to whom they can relate. Effective leadership requires building a relationship of trust and respect in order to influence people and that means that some level of vulnerability is a requirement. Without vulnerability only weak connections are possible, not the level of trust and respect that we need to influence well.

Vulnerability should not be viewed as weakness or being wimpy. In fact, vulnerability is a sign of strength. It says, “I am comfortable with who I am and I have the courage to allow others to see the real me.” Vulnerability is being genuine and taking risks in relationship. Dictionaries often define vulnerability as the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. Brené Brown, the social researcher, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” In other words, vulnerability is letting those in relationship see our emotions as a part of our humanity.

Vulnerability is a requirement in any meaningful relationship. Whether the relationship is in our marriage, with our children or wider family, our close friends, or in the workplace, they all require vulnerability to build depth. If the relationship is going to have depth or strength, it must involve connection deeper than the weather, sports, and the tasks for today. A true relationship touches on emotions. In her book, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown says. “Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable.”

Focusing now on the role of vulnerability for leadership in the workplace, let us examine what the leadership relationship looks like both with and without vulnerability. Without vulnerability –

  • others are held at arm’s length
  • therefore the perception that others have of us can be de-humanizing, they struggle to relate to us
  • therefore, we are not known
  • therefore, we cannot really know others
  • therefore, we cannot see and understand the motivations and challenges that those around us face in their roles and responsibilities
  • therefore, we are not likely to connect in a way that motivates and inspires.

As a leader without vulnerability, we can be perceived as either uncaring or a superhuman that feels no emotion. Either way, we are standing off from those around us. In summary, it’s difficult to build a relationship of respect and trust without some vulnerability.

On the other hand, a proper level of vulnerability on the part of the leader in the workplace provides the following:

  • a recognition by others of our humanity and equality
  • a connection that we all have some level of anxieties and frailties
  • an openness to understanding and empathy (in both directions)
  • the ability to relate to one another at a level that fosters trust and respect.

In the workplace, vulnerability is built upon a level of authenticity and transparency. This doesn’t mean pouring out all of the problems you face at home or in other personal relationships. It does mean sharing with those on your team some of the emotions that come as part of responsibility and decision-making including struggles with fear, uncertainty, perhaps even what that critical judge is telling you. Taking responsibility for a failed project or initiative is one small yet concrete example of a leader practicing vulnerability. Vulnerability is about being a real human being and allowing others to see and know us. This builds connection. Only by doing so can we build a true relationship of trust and respect that invites those around to follow.

Are you comfortable and courageous enough to be vulnerable and allow those in relationship to see and hear the real you? Being vulnerable requires a strong level of emotional intelligence. How are you doing with that?

2 Comments
  • by Susan Posted October 20, 2017 10:55 pm

    Many leaders I know would benefit from this perspective! They don’t realize that putting someone at arm’s length does not engender respect, because no one likes to feel “less than.” A real leader can say “I messed up, but this is how I dealt with it.” It’s problem solving and building on the strengths of every team member that creates loyalty, and makes people want to come to work in the morning. Thanks Ken!

    • by Ken Vaughan Posted October 21, 2017 12:52 am

      Thanks, Susan, for the great added thoughts

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