By Chris McGoff
Vulnerability often gets a bad rap. People, especially leaders, think that being open about their feelings is damaging, or even worse, a sign of weakness. However, based on the successes of leaders like Winston Churchill who have embraced vulnerability, it has become apparent that the exact opposite is true.
Great leaders embrace moments of vulnerability by being honest about their feelings and admitting or acknowledging their mistakes. This vulnerability, in turn, leads to trust and real connections, which help improve a group’s performance.
So with that in mind, here are some tips on how, and when, to let down your guard and lead through vulnerability.
Start by opening up about your weaknesses.
No one is an expert in every situation they’ll encounter, yet leaders often feel that they have to present themselves as a final authority in order to inspire confidence. In reality, over-promising on capabilities can lead to mismanaged expectations and may do more harm than good to a leader’s reputation.
Consider entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis, who credits his successful business partnerships and ability to build relationships to his openness about his weaknesses and mistakes. He says, “Relationships are built on trust, and trust is built on vulnerability and transparency.”
Lemonis starts a relationship by first discussing his limitations and weaknesses and how he learned about them — his mistakes, in other words. Doing so makes his business partners feel comfortable that they can be open and honest about the limits of their own expertise as well, which leads to a more well-rounded partnership built on trust.
Don’t be afraid to be human.
When COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died suddenly in 2015, Sandberg was honest and open about her grief and suffering. By doing so, she sent a message that it’s ok to be seen as a leader and a vulnerable human being at the same time. She credits this period of her life with helping her develop incredibly close relationships with her employees, and many analysts credit Facebook’s success to her leadership skills.
Vulnerability like Sheryl’s breeds trust, but there are two corollaries that must be understood in these situations:
- Vulnerability and the act of seeking advice are only effective if the individual is perceived as competent through other channels. A leader recognizing vulnerability in another team member should take particular care to build up that individual.
- The organization must build a culture of integrity, doing what they say they will do at all times. If individuals are treated differently when they ask for help or advice that has been readily provided to others, this can impact trust among team members.
Be open and honest about failure.
Every leader understands that failures will happen, no matter how well a team performs. And in these situations, it is the leader’s duty to make the ultimate expression of vulnerability: a public apology and admission of failure.
Let’s return to Sheryl Sandberg and look at her quote regarding Facebook’s recent data breach issues: “This was a huge breach of trust. People come to Facebook every day and they depend on us to protect their data and I am so sorry that we let so many people down.”
When a leader takes responsibility for a failure, the action builds trust among team members who understand that they are protected. Failures are opportunities to learn and improve, but it is difficult for a team to feel this way if they are punished for issues that arise.
Additionally, taking responsibility for failures sets a tone of integrity — the leader has demonstrated responsibility for the team’s actions, and that behavior will be mirrored among the team members. This trust is the key to achieving high performance, and it comes from vulnerability.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal.” And as we’ve seen, the best leaders among us build trust and respect through vulnerability. So don’t be afraid to let your guard down and be honest about your emotions and your mistakes.
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