Vulnerability and Leadership
It takes real strength to be vulnerable.
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.” — Madeline L’Engle
The three most humbling words a leader can say are: “I was wrong.”
It might seem disempowering to admit we don’t know everything. But that’s part of leadership. We’re human and we’re not always correct.
There’s a myth that leaders are supposed to seem tough, confident, and infallible—almost superhuman at times—and never admit a failure.
Who doesn’t admire a leader who can withstand the challenges and blows that are sent their way? We like to think those who protect us are themselves impervious to harm.
But even the strongest heroes can be vulnerable. Achilles’ had his heel. Superman had kryptonite.
There’s a remarkable thing about this, though: when we discover these character flaws, it doesn't sour us on our heroes or make us turn our noses up in disgust. On the contrary, these weaknesses make us more sympathetic to them.
Our admiration grows because we realize they’re willing to assume responsibilities that no one else will, despite those flaws.
Read on to understand why vulnerability matters, a lesson from Shakespeare, and how to incorporate vulnerability into your leadership style.
Two important takeaways from those essays:
Humility is attentive patience.
Truth is a down payment on loyalty.
Here’s another one:
Vulnerability is at the intersection of truth and humility.
To be vulnerable is to be honest and to discard your arrogance.
Not an easy thing to do if you’re a leader who has been blessed with success after success, or one who appears to have all of the traditional hallmarks of strength.
“Most of us admire strength. It’s something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength with other words—like aggression and even violence. Real strength is neither male nor female; but it is, quite simply, one of the finest characteristics that any human being can possess.” — Fred Rogers
“Two truths are told”
Take Macbeth as an example. Shakespeare’s tragic general who would be king. In his soliloquy in Act V, he admits:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
In this scene, Macbeth’s crimes are catching up with him and he knows his actions were for naught. With his confidence gone, we see Macbeth at his most honest and vulnerable in the entire play.
When you consider the journey that Macbeth undertook—from war as a general in King Duncan’s army to the prophecies of the witches to Banquo’s death and his apparition—it’s humbling to see him admit that it wasn’t worth it.
Macbeth admits his mistakes and ultimate failure, as a lesson for the rest of us.
Don’t be the smartest person in the room
It’s tempting to continue to throw good money after bad. To double down on incorrect assumptions in order to save face. But sometimes we have to learn the hard way.
You’re not paid to be the smartest person in the room.
It took me a while to realize this while I was an executive at Ford, leading social media and digital communications. Ostensibly, I knew more about that topic than anyone at the company. However, there was plenty of room for others to contribute.
I missed that in some cases and may have come off as arrogant. And I regret it.
It's okay to say “I don’t know.” Or “I need help.”
That’s not a weakness—it’s a strength.
Why does vulnerability signify strength? For one, it shows our honest efforts to improve, as we admit mistakes and look for input to move forward.
More importantly, being vulnerable shows courage and curiosity, which are admirable traits — traits that signify we’re open to building relationships with others rather than living in our own bubble.
How to embrace vulnerability in your leadership style
Be honest. Even when telling a story, truth matters.
Acknowledge your mistakes. Admitting it is the first step; you should also apologize when you’re wrong.
Say when you need help. You’re not expected to know everything. Give others a chance to show their expertise and grow in their roles as well.
Build relationships. Colleagues and coaches can help on your unending journey of self-improvement. Look for others who have been there or who can offer an outside view.
We’re all dealing with our own challenges, in times of uncertainty as well as in normal circumstances. Leadership means providing a clear and calm direction despite any obstacles, and being vulnerable can help you navigate the less certain times, showing your willingness to work together with those whom you let in.
Being vulnerable means being human.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.