Vulnerable and leadership are not usually two words or concepts we put together. Most of us, myself included, have been taught that to be a “good leader” we have to be strong, convicted, and confident. “Never let ’em see you sweat,” we’ve been told.
However, I believe it’s time for those of us who want to inspire, motivate, and lead others to step into our role as a leader with transparency, honesty, and vulnerability. As Mother Teresa said, “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.”
Some of us have specific leadership roles in life – we manage other people in our job, we’re the head of a company, team, committee, or organization, we’re involved in school or community activities where our job is to lead others, we write, speak, or coach other people about taking their lives to the next level, and much more.
And, even if we don’t hold a specific position of leadership in what we do, just about all of us have the opportunity to be leaders in various ways. In our families, with our friends, in our community, and in our work – we have the ability to influence others in a positive way and many of us have a deep desire to impact those around us.
What if instead of obsessing about being smart, qualified, strong, powerful, innovative, creative, and other conventional leadership qualities – we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable as a way of freeing us up from the intense pressure we often feel as leaders and as a way to influence people in an authentic way.
While it may seem counter-intuitive and can sometimes be a little scary, being a vulnerable leader is what I think is needed (and often missing) in our businesses, schools, churches, communities, governments, and our world today.
Here are some key principles of vulnerable leadership:
1) Admit and own your mistakes – We all make mistakes, especially as leaders. The more willing we are to admit and own our mistakes (not make excuses, point fingers, or avoid responsibility) the more others will trust us and want to follow our lead. Taking responsibility, apologizing, and making amends for the mistakes we make are not always easy things to do, but they’re essential for us to have true credibility with the people around us.
2) Share your fear and insecurity – Fear and insecurity are inseparable from being human and being a leader. We all get scared, but too often deny or avoid it, so as not to look weak. However, admitting our fear and sharing it with others does a few important things. First of all, it can free us up from the fear itself. Second of all, it allows others to realize we’re human. Third, it gives the people around us permission to feel and express their own fear, which is essential for individuals and groups if they’re going to come together and move through adversity. Sharing our fears with others is not something we do to make excuses or to dump our “stuff” onto other people, it’s a bold act of vulnerable leadership and something that can have a profound impact on those around us.
3) Don’t take yourself too seriously – It’s important for us to have a sense of humor and not get too full of ourselves, which is something many of us do, particularly as a leader. As I jokingly say to my wife Michelle sometimes, “Do you have any idea how important I think I am?” We must laugh at ourselves, notice when we get too serious, and have enough self awareness to keep things in a healthy perspective.
4) Share your own process, journey, and challenges – We’re always going through a process of growth, discovery, and challenge in life – especially as leaders. This process doesn’t have to be difficult or painful, although sometimes it can be. The more transparent we are about our own process and the more willing we are to let the people around us know what we’re dealing with, learning, and challenged by – the more we let them know who we truly are, give them insight into how we operate, and create an environment around us that is open, authentic, and conducive for individual and collective growth.
5) Ask for and receive help from others – As leaders most of us like to help others, but often we have a difficult time asking for and receiving help. Requesting help can be perceived, especially by us, as an admission of weakness or an acknowledgment that we’re not capable of doing something. However, all of us need help and support – and in some cases, we need a lot of it. Being the kind of leader who is comfortable enough with yourself and the people around you to admit when you don’t know something, can’t do something, or simply need help in making something happen, is not a sign of weakness; it’s both a sign of strength and an opportunity to empower others in an authentic way.