Being Vulnerable: What Exactly Do We Mean By That?
We've all heard it, and heard it a lot lately.
In order to lead successfully, effectively, a leader must be: vulnerable.
I've always agreed with this, but I really didn't understand what being vulnerable meant. I feel better about what I know now.
Let's take a peek.
Vulnerable: susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm. This is the top result of a Google search, which in truth, does not sound pleasant nor a place I want to put myself purposely. It implies you are the weaker one, especially compared to others. There’s solid potential you will be hurt if you practice vulnerability.
Can my leadership really be more effective if I'm viewed as weak?
I now have a much clearer understanding of what being vulnerable means, and I’ve realized it’s not about weakness at all, it’s about strength. Only the strong are able to risk vulnerability.
I'll start by saying what it isn't:
It is not telling people your saddest story, your struggles, or intricate personal details of your problems. I cannot tell you how many times I thought to myself, “To what extent do I need to reveal my hurts and pains to the world in order to be considered vulnerable?” Thinking, if that’s the case, I’ll pass.
However, after watching Brene Brown's talk on Netflix, I learned a lot about vulnerability. My biggest takeaway? That vulnerability is not disclosure. Talk about instant relief.
Followed by head scratching confusion.
I mean, if I'm not broadcasting how hard something is, or how painful a part of my life is, or some other tale of doom and gloom, how do I do vulnerable?
Thankfully, I spend my days leadership coaching. Every day I speak with folks about what it's like to lead. Most recently, I had one say that he never wants be perceived as being vulnerable.
I think he too is confused about what it really means. What I’ve discovered about being vulnerable, is it’s saying what you really feel, or asking for what you truly need, without putting up any fronts or on any airs. It’s complete honesty; which people appreciate, can then relate to, and are inspired to be around.
For example, another client recently earned a promotion the same week her most trusted, knowledgeable, right hand person also received a promotion but in a different department. My client is elated and worried. Anytime we are promoted, we want to exceed expectations and perform well right out of the gate, prove ourselves worthy. We are available more than needed as work becomes the top priority. Her worry is how to balance this new promotion with feeling that she must now be more involved in the work her right hand person was doing. How can she handle both and still carve out personal time?
As we talked, I asked her if she had anyone at her disposal who could help. She immediately realized she did and came up with the idea to approach another team with the bait of, "I'd like you to take on some new responsibilities, it will be a way you can take more ownership of what's happening in our department."
Not awful. But definitely a roundabout approach instead of sharing really what she was looking and hoping for. This current approach hopes to tempt them with ownership in exchange for more work, something that people may be wary of.
We talked more and got closer to an approach that felt more real. We realized that if she became vulnerable in this situation, her ask became more palatable, and may even be welcomed by this other team. This vulnerability came across when instead of leading with her first thought, she decided she would go with, "I need your help," and explain what was going on. She would then include how perhaps the current situation could be an opportunity to look at how responsibilities are structured.
This approach allowed for opportunity, without masking what she really was looking for: their help. Much more compelling.
Another client discussed how one of her direct reports would send emails that would sound an alarm but never offered thoughts for resolution. It began to really bother her. Originally, her approach was going to say, “You know it really bothers me when…”. But that didn’t feel right, it bordered on combative. After more coaching, we ended on, “You know what would really help me…”. Vulnerable, compelling.
Now, for those of you concerned that vulnerability dismisses accountability, that’s not the case. By establishing what you need from them, you are guiding them on how to improve their performance or how to contribute from a place of asking not demanding. It’s develops a relationship that says, “I need you,” not, “You’re lucky to have this job, do this if you want to keep it.” It increases the chances of them following your lead.
Being vulnerable means you don’t make up reasons to save face, you just share why you need what you need or share your true (and completely relatable) feelings. This honesty with everyone, yourself included, empowers them while liberating you. I cannot tell you how much weight is lifted when you do this and skip trying to entice with baubles and benefits.
You are not Invincible and that is OK
Leading with vulnerability allows people to see you for who you really are, and reveals your self-awareness. The ability to share real feelings without any smoke or mirrors concealing our humanness is captivating. It's opening ourself up, showing that we are not invincible, and that yes, in a way, other people have power of us. That's not being weak. That's strength and savvy because it reveals truth. It’s effective, empowering, and real. Vulnerable. All which inspire action, help, hope, while giving others the opportunity to be your hero.
That's why vulnerability fuels leadership. It exposes the truth of the situation. Good, bad, ugly, it is inclusive. It gives everyone the power to influence and be a part of the solution. True ownership is powered by contribution. It could not have been done without them, and that feels really, really good. People will admire you for that.
Vulnerability is trusting others will not harm you, even when you give them the chance.