Vulnerable Leadership: The Power of Opening Up

Great leaders brim with confidence. They have all the answers. And always maintain a professional image. Well, that’s what most management books tell you, anyway.

Written by Catriona MacLeod
Published 15 November 2021
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Vulnerable Leadership: The Power of Opening Up

But there’s an alternative school of thinking – backed up by top CEOs – that promotes vulnerable leadership. So, what is it, and how can this philosophy benefit you and your employees?

What is vulnerable leadership?

When Vineet Nayar became head of IT services company HCL, he worried about leading its 160,000 employees. Taking to the stage for his first speech as CEO, Bollywood music blaring, he ditched the script. Instead, he wiggled, danced down the aisles and pulled people up from their chairs to join in.[1] With bad moves and an infectious smile, Nayar showed the essence of vulnerable leadership. He was genuine, human and relatable. And people instantly warmed to him.

Going all in

To understand this kind of leadership style, it’s a good idea to ditch the dictionary definition of vulnerable as ‘weak’. For research professor and best-selling author Brené Brown, a vulnerable leader goes ‘all in’, embraces uncertainty and risks failure. Doing so makes them courageous.[2]

Nayar’s intro might have fallen flat but as J.P. Donlon, editor of Chief Executive magazine explains, ‘The more that leaders open their hearts, reveal their fears and show their authentic selves, the deeper the connections among team members will be, and the more the team will achieve.’[3] After Nayar shuffled to the podium and the laughter settled, productive discussions followed.

Let’s discover the benefits of being authentic, brave and relatable for you and your employees.

You’ll drive engagement

With 77% of staff disengaged at work and 51% on the look out for a new job,[4] it’s never been more important for leaders to engage with their people.

It worked for the CEOs that authors Barry Kaplan and Jeffrey Manchester interviewed for their book The Power of Vulnerability. In one case, the new leader of a failing US manufacturer struggled to connect with his team, who found him cold and aloof.

With KPIs in freefall, the CEO called an off-site meeting. There, he opened up about his confidence issues, how he second-guessed his credentials for the top job and admitted staying on the road – chasing sales leads – rather than be rumbled in the office. His openness and honesty sparked compassion. His team shared their fears, and together, they discussed how to support each other and get the organisation back on track.[5]

You’ll avoid complacency

When CEOs have impostor syndrome, they question every action and isolate themselves from others for fear of being found out.[6] Without the expertise of colleagues, leaders don’t get all the perspectives they need to make informed decisions. This can lead to complacency and mistakes.

The cure can be as easy as letting others speak. When leaders drop the all-knowing facade and admit their knowledge gaps, great things happen. Staff step up and bring new ideas to the table, become more loyal and committed.[7]

You’ll solve problems faster

When employees feel confident voicing their opinions, an open culture emerges. People often fear bringing bad news to their managers because they’re worried it won’t go down well.[8] To avoid a bad situation escalating in silence, own up to your own mistakes first.

That’s what Vineet Nayar does. Vulnerability wasn’t just a one-off performance, it became the backbone of HCL’s ‘Employees First, Customers Second’ philosophy. Leaders share successes and failures with the whole organisation to create a culture of trust, keep people in the loop and let them spot and solve issues sooner.[9] By being transparent, HCL consistently outperforms the competition, growing year-on-year during a recession (18% in 2009 and 24% in 2010) as well as 34% growth over 2017/18.[10]

Five ways to open up

Beginning to see the benefits of vulnerable leadership? Here’s how you and your team can achieve it.

1. Seek counsel

Even if you have an open corporate culture, many employees feel uneasy telling their boss home truths. That’s where a trusted advisor comes in.

Worldwide, 90% of CEOs admit they need counsel. But two out of three confess they don’t receive it.[11] Psychologist Tasha Eurich calls the phenomenon ‘CEO Disease’.[12] Basically, the higher you get on the corporate ladder, the harder it is to be self-aware and admit weaknesses.

To overcome this the potential of isolation, skewed perspectives and bad choices, find an advisor who isn’t afraid to offer an alternative view, and if needed, check your ego.

2. Get personal

Once you have someone who can give you honest feedback, don’t be afraid to share your weaknesses and mistakes with your team as and when appropriate. When people feel comfortable doing the same, they’ll open up and communicate better.[13] Schwantes also recommends sharing personal stories and experiences with your ‘tribe’. That way, you’ll reveal you’re imperfect, too, and connect on an emotional level.[14]

3. Be authentic – always

As Nayar shows, revealing your vulnerability shouldn’t be a one-off. On Leadership authors Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones discovered more inspirational leaders who consistently open up. Like the Virgin founder. ‘He is ill at ease and fumbles incessantly when interviewed in public. It's a weakness, but it's Richard Branson.’[15] For them, revealing weaknesses like this shows your followers you’re genuine, approachable and human.

4. Admit when you don’t know something

Run out of ideas? Stuck in a rut? Admit it to your team and you’ll spark new ideas. By revealing your shortcomings, you’ll show it’s okay to try new things – even if they fail – and put your people at ease bringing forward new ideas they may have kept under wraps. It’s this willingness to take risks that Brene Brown calls the ‘birthplace of creativity’.[16]

5. Don’t get too comfortable

An open culture isn’t all bean bags and camomile tea. In fact, Brown recommends you ‘create a culture where discomfort is normal’.[17] For her, getting honest feedback, learning and innovating involves constantly stepping outside your comfort zone.

So, where to start?

If the words ‘vulnerable leadership’ leave you uneasy, remember it’s just a term. Being an ‘empathetic’, ‘human’ or ‘relatable’ leader might fit you better.

You can start with you. Share something about yourself. Admit a recent failure. Crack a joke, even. Do that and you’ll lighten the mood, help create an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable being themselves – and bringing valuable new ideas to the table.




Sources
[1] Andrew Leigh, ‘Vulnerable: a sure sign of an authentic or weak leader?’, Ethical Leadership (2017). Available at: http://www.ethical-leadership.co.uk/vulnerable/.
[2] Brené Brown website. Available at: https://brenebrown.com (accessed at 15 November 2021).
[3] J.P Donlon, ‘CEOs, Are You Vulnerable To Weakness And Lack Of Authenticity?’, Chief Executive (2018). Available at: https://chiefexecutive.net/ceos-are-you-vulnerable-towhat/ (accessed 2018).
[4] Jim Harter and Amy Adkins, ‘Are Your Star Employees Slipping Away?’ Gallup (2017). Available at: http://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/204248/star-employees-slippingaway.aspx (accesssed 2018).
[5] J.P Donlon, ‘CEOs, Are You Vulnerable To Weakness And Lack Of Authenticity?’, Chief Executive (2018). Available at: https://chiefexecutive.net/ceos-are-you-vulnerable-towhat/ (accessed 2018).
[6] Shawn Overcast, ‘Vulnerability Is Your Ticket Out of the Leadership Fishbowl’, Business 2 Community (2017). Available at: https://www.business2community.com/leadership/vulnerability-ticket-leadership-fishbowl0187778 (accessed 2018).
[7] Marcel Scwantes, ‘What Will Make You an Exceptional Leader, Exactly? It Comes Down to 1 Word’, Inc (2017). Available at: https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/richardbranson-brene-brown-and-marcus-lemonis-agree-this-is-what-will-make-you-.html (accessed 2018).
[8] ‘7 Situations Where Vulnerability Is The Best Management Strategy’, Fast Company (2017). Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/40503371/7-situations-wherevulnerability-is-the-best-management-strategy (accessed 15 November 2021).
[9] 'Employees First, Customers Second' audio interview. Available in the Leadership section of your toolkit.
[10] India Infoline News Service, ‘HCL Tech continues to expand market share: Vineet Nayar’ (2018). Available at: https://www.indiainfoline.com/article/general-others/hcl-techcontinues-to-expand-market-share-vineet-nayar-113101906913_1.html (accessed 15 November 2021).
[11] Andrew Leigh, ‘Vulnerable: a sure sign of an authentic or weak leader?’, Ethical Leadership (2017). Available at: http://www.ethical-leadership.co.uk/vulnerable/ (accessed 15 November 2021)
[12] Frank Kalman, ‘Vulnerability Is a Leadership Skill, Not a Weakness’, Chief Learning Officer (2017) Available at: http://www.clomedia.com/2017/05/24/vulnerability-is-aleadership-skill-not-a-weakness/ (accessed 2018).
[13] ‘7 Situations Where Vulnerability Is The Best Management Strategy’, Fast Company (2017) Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/40503371/7-situations-wherevulnerability-is-the-best-management-strategy (accessed 15 November 2021).
[14] Marcel Scwantes, ‘What Will Make You an Exceptional Leader, Exactly? It Comes Down to 1 Word’, Inc (2017). Available at: https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/richardbranson-brene-brown-and-marcus-lemonis-agree-this-is-what-will-make-you-.html (accessed 2018).
[15] Ibid.
[16] Kimberly Weisul and Andrew Maclean, ‘4 Powerful Things Leaders Should Know About Vulnerability’. Available at: https://www.inc.com/kimberly-weisul-and-andrewmaclean/dr-brene-brown-vulnerability-leadership.html (accessed 5 April 2018).
[17] Ibid.

About the author

Catriona MacLeod

Catriona MacLeod

Editorial Manager
Catriona has over 19 years of experience in editorial management. She works with clients across a wide range of sectors to deliver relevant and practical resources to meet the learning needs of leaders and managers. Catriona loves the variety of her role, from writing and editing content to conducting video interviews with industry experts.

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