In our personal lives we all know the power of vulnerability, it helps us connect with our friends and family members and build great relationships.
We’re also told to be vulnerable at work, but is that good advice?
At work we have a very different dynamic that includes hierarchy, deadlines, bosses, customers, money, and a host of other things. Is being vulnerable in that kind of an environment really just as easy as it is in our personal lives?
What if you’re in a leadership role where you are actually responsible for the lives of others and for the fiscal side of a team or business? Is vulnerability for you the same as it is for everyone else?
From the over 100 CEOs I interviewed at companies including GE, American Airlines, Edward Jones, Hyatt, and dozens of others, the answer is a resounding, no!
What does being vulnerable at work even mean? Most people assume it has something to do with authenticity which is somewhat true. Vulnerability is saying or doing something that exposes you to the potential of emotional harm. For example, sharing a personal challenge or struggle or admitting to a mistake or failure.
Leading with vulnerability on the other hand takes this one step further, it’s about saying or doing something that exposes you to the potential of emotional harm but while taking action to create a positive outcome. Taking a similar example, this would be admitting to making a mistake but also sharing what you learned and the steps you are going to take to make sure the mistake doesn’t happen again in the future.
I call this, The Vulnerable Leader Equation.
Authenticity plays an important role when it comes to leading with vulnerability, but being authentic and being vulnerable are not the same thing.
In fact, the most common response I got back when I asked the over 100 CEOs to define what it means to be a vulnerable leader is “authenticity.” When probed further, this was defined as being a single version of you.
Jack Welch was authentic and so was Steve Ballmer. They arguably wore their emotions on their sleeves and had no problem cursing you out or throwing a chair across the room, but were they known for intentionally opening themselves up to the potential of emotional harm?
Here’s how Christian Klein, the CEO of the 110,00-person enterprise application software company SAP told me about being authentic.
“The biggest mistake leaders make is that they think they have all the answers – and if they don’t, they pretend they do. The truth is that no one on this planet knows all the answers. Be authentic. For people to trust you, you need to “walk the talk” and shouldn't pretend to be someone you’re not. If leaders can’t be vulnerable, others on the team are not going to do that either.”
For decades most of us had to live with two identities, like spies in an action thriller. We had the identity at home and the identity at work and these two identities were never supposed to meet! Being authentic, simply put, means just being a single version of yourself.
Read more: The Strategic Power of Vulnerability
To focus on being more authentic at work, here are a few things you can do:
Define your personal set of values and stick to them.
Authentic leaders are grounded in a strong set of core values. These values guide their decisions, actions, and interactions. By defining and adhering to a personal set of values, a leader showcases consistency and integrity.
Authentic leadership involves voicing your opinions, concerns, and ideas even when they might be unpopular (but in a respective way). By speaking up, you demonstrate courage and commitment to your beliefs. This also fosters an environment of open communication where team members feel encouraged to share their perspectives, leading to richer discussions and better decision-making.
Share how you’re feeling.
Sharing emotions and vulnerabilities humanises you as a leader. It shows that you are not infallible or a robotic entity but a real person with genuine feelings. By being open about your emotions, you create a safe space for others to express their feelings too. This leads to deeper connections, mutual understanding, and a more cohesive team dynamic.
Be honest with yourself and those around you.
Honesty is a cornerstone of authentic leadership. Being truthful, even when the truth is hard to admit, showcases a leader's integrity. By being honest with themselves, leaders can recognise their strengths and areas for improvement. Being honest with others builds trust, as team members know they can take the leader's words at face value and that there are no hidden agendas.
Being authentic is one of the 8 attributes of vulnerable leaders.
This article is also available in Chinese.