The vast majority of today’s senior leaders have arrived where they are by seeming invincible. That’s how they got to the top, and that’s how they stay there. Often, it’s so ingrained that they aren’t even conscious of it. They control, criticize, and intimidate—and they equate vulnerability with weakness. And yet, in our new Brené Brown-led awareness, it turns out that’s just stinkin’ thinkin’. With over 42 million views of her Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, we now know that being vulnerable proves you have the courage to be you—that you’re strong enough to risk exposure of your feelings for the betterment of yourself, your team, and your organization. Booyah!

So, that’s the answer then. Self-disclosing weakness... Easy, right? <insert eyeroll here>

Not surprisingly, I work with a lot of leaders who resist being vulnerable. Typically, it’s for one of two reasons:

  1. They have never learned how to express vulnerability, and don’t know how to start.
  2. They are sincerely afraid that admitting to weakness or lack of knowledge will negatively affect the perception of their status and impact their influence.  

Clearly, we’re living in a time where a good workplace culture is the ultimate goal. What does that mean? It’s not about the numbers (although it’s how you get them). A healthy culture begins with a strong leadership team. When strong leaders create satisfaction and engagement, encourage appreciation of diversity, build trust and respect, value transparent communication at all levels, stir a sense of pride for the company and the work being done, and provide an opportunity for each person to develop their full potential—well, you’ve created a healthy culture. When you build this sort of culture, vulnerability is not a weakness at all, it’s the fundamental foundation stone.

“Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.” — Brené Brown

The leaders I work with all want this kind of organizational culture, but don’t always understand why being on the leading edge of vulnerability yourself will bring it about—or how to get there. Leaders who build self-awareness, confide in their team, admit their mistakes, and ask for help when they need it, bring real impact:

  1. Letting others experience the real you, warts and all, forms genuine connection and creates a space for deeper, and more real, discussion about what really matters in your organization.
  2. Being willing to admit you don’t have all the answers demonstrates a desire to engage with new ideas and encourages creativity within your team—taking the focus off your weaknesses and onto the strengths of others.
  3. Asking questions allows you to see your organization through the lens of the people you lead—encouraging understanding of context and a deeper sense of commitment for all.
  4. Removing the proverbial ‘tough guy’ armour in order to solve a problem effectively is a selfless and courageous act that unequivocally takes your leadership ability to a whole new level.
  5. When you recognize yourself as a human being who makes mistakes and wrestles with fear, it takes your ego out of the equation and allows you to fully listen to other important perspectives.
  6. Confiding your struggles shows that you feel able to trust your team, value their feedback, and need their support—all of which builds a strong bond of loyalty within the group.
  7. Your transparency creates space for others to be open and vulnerable so they can also bring their best to the organization. Modelling is everything.

No matter how much we talk about it and wish for it, a positive culture doesn’t just naturally evolve. If the leaders don’t deliberately cultivate and model the vulnerability and trust-building necessary for the organization to develop a healthy culture, it quite naturally defaults into a negative dynamic of chronic mistrust and dissatisfaction, individual gain over company gain, high turnover, and in the end, an adversely-affected bottom line.

As leaders, we must put our money where our mouths are. If we want a healthy culture, we need to recognize that the best opportunities to build trust appear when things are not going well. These are the moments when we can make the most impact. Modelling the ability to admit mistakes or uncertainty and working together to fix the situation creates opportunity for building trust and bonding as a team. This helps you, strengthens every leader at the table, and enriches the organization.

Being vulnerable is the most courageous act of leadership. Step into it.

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