How Vulnerable Leaders Unlock Greatness

By Jaci Reed

Okay, confession time. At Transcend we’ve cried at work…sometimes out of frustration, passion, hurt, or even tears of support. We’ve also cried alongside clients while they’ve processed hurt, uncertainty, and celebrations within their businesses and personal lives. Some of you reading those first few sentences have already formed an opinion of us. For so long, the business world has held the belief that vulnerability equals weakness and unprofessionalism. As a performance-based system, leaders especially, must be stoic and void of emotion. While some leaders have bucked the stereotype in recent years, most still hold on to vulnerability as a shortcoming. However, Brené Brown, leading shame and vulnerability researcher, tells us a different story about vulnerability. In her research, she has found that vulnerability is not only our “most accurate measure of courage” but “the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” As we continue to reel from job loss, health scares, and displacement due to COVID-19, alongside the emotional, psychological, and moral toll of Black Lives Matter, vulnerability in leadership is even more essential today, and will continue to be into the future.

What is vulnerability and what’s at stake when leaders aren’t vulnerable?

Vulnerability does not only equal emotionality. Sometimes it does, but true vulnerability is all about revealing your humanness. And we need more humanness in leadership. As humans our brains are programmed to recognize commonalities and differences to connect with those who we feel are “safe.” We are wired to deduce threats quickly, including emotional threats, and our actions will follow our conclusions. There are many studies that even show our subconscious registers body language, micro-expressions, and gestures within seconds to make a judgment about who is on our side or not. By removing vulnerability from leadership, we fail to provide the human connection needed to build trust within business.

The most impactful way to lead with vulnerability is to recognize that we are all whole people coming into work with personal challenges and emotions. When we as leaders fail to create environments that allow our employees and teammates to address these challenges and emotions in a vulnerable way, and when we don’t model this type of vulnerability ourselves, the consequences are less productivity and more distractions for us and our workforce. Some of you might be thinking, “there’s no crying in baseball! I need to save my business, not sit around and talk about feelings.” Studies show that even just 10 minutes spent listening and providing empathy to someone at work leads to higher productivity, more engagement, and an increased likelihood of that individual working better within a team. Because when we feel heard, we feel connected.

Therefore, humanness must remain in the workplace for it to thrive. Increased vulnerability enhances:

• Connectedness
• Trust
• Authenticity
• Empathy
• Idea exchange
• Risk-taking

These benefits, in turn, create more innovation, more creativity, more productivity, and a deeper sense of loyalty that lead to higher profits.

As leaders, it is vitally important we exemplify vulnerability in the workplace and create safe environments where vulnerability is encouraged and modeled at the highest levels. We all have a unique story, background, and experience to share, which is critical to engagement, productivity, and respect within the workplace.

So how can you show up as a vulnerable leader today?

Here are 7 ways:

1. Share your life with your team and actively ask your team to share theirs with you.

2. Allow space for and encourage honest, authentic idea exchange through your words, actions, and reactions.

3. Use empathy to overcome personal or professional challenges. Sometimes a simple, “I can’t imagine what you are going through, or what that would feel like. What can we do to help?” goes a long way toward building trust and connectedness through vulnerability.

4. Be conscious of what is happening outside the workplace in the world today and consider how that may be affecting you and your workforce. Then address it. Be open and honest and, again, ask the question, “what do you need?” Seeking to understand instead of solving demonstrates presence and true respect. We don’t go to work in a vacuum. What is happening to us outside of work, will affect our work.

5. Ask questions and be open, even in times of disagreement or misunderstanding.

6. Be radically transparent with information and data about the business with your team and organization.

7. Openly share why your passions and the wins in business and life mean so much to you.

We will leave you with a story about how vulnerability can change the face of your business. Transcend delivered a strategic planning session with a team years ago. This leadership team was professional and pretty buttoned up. We came to the time in our facilitation where we talk about the power of team and the part vulnerability plays in creating championship teams. As a part of the activity, team members came into the center of the circle to show their vulnerability. One of the leaders had just gone through cancer treatment and, when she entered the circle, she removed her wig. It was the first time she had presented herself without it to her colleagues. That one act of bravery, of courage, changed the entire dynamic of the strategy session and the connectedness, collaboration, and creativity of the team grew exponentially. But she would have never committed to this act of vulnerability if she hadn’t been given the space, opportunity, and encouragement to do so. And the team would have never had the chance to transform itself through her gift. You see, courageous acts of vulnerability are catalysts to bigger things that cannot be fabricated through any other method of leadership. Only when we embrace the uniqueness of our humanness and all we have to offer, not just a percentage of it, can we demonstrate the power of unity and truly win in business and life.

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Jaci Reed's profile picture.

Jaci Reed

Senior Executive Coach and Strategist

Jaci holds master’s degrees in behavioral psychology and organizational development. She is a senior HR-certified professional (SHRM-SCP), certified Prosci change management practitioner, certified ATD consultant, and certified employee engagement specialist.

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