The Secret Power of Vulnerability in Leadership

With the competitive nature of modern business, it has become a pretty common perception that anyone in a leadership position needs to be firm and unshakeable. There is no room for vulnerability in leadership, right? When you’re in charge of making decisions and giving direction, it’s easy to see why you might think it’s best to give the impression you have it all figured out and that the pressure never gets to you. After all, your people aren’t going to trust your guidance if you seem emotional or uncertain… are they?  

A vulnerable figure standing atop a globe in a painting.

If you catch yourself falling into that mindset, stop right there. 

Not only is it exhausting to try to keep up that charade, but you’re also building a wall between yourself and the people you manage—a wall that may be preventing them from really trusting you as a leader. 

As it turns out, the secret sauce for strong, trustworthy leadership is, in fact, becoming more vulnerable. 

Why would anyone want vulnerability in a leader?

It seems counterintuitive, we know. Being vulnerable and willing to show weakness may feel like it leaves you open for attack. Why would you ever want to do that? Now is as good a time as any to remind yourself that your workplace is not a battlefield, and nobody in it should be your enemy. 

As a leader, whether you’re overseeing one team or an entire company, you need to be a source of guidance as well as a trustworthy example for the people on your team. If you’re inaccessible as a person, it’s going to be impossible for anyone to follow your example. 

So how do you become more vulnerable as a leader? Many people spend years in therapy trying to learn how to do that very thing. It certainly isn’t something that can be mastered overnight, but there are three things you can start practicing today to develop more confidence in your vulnerability so your team or audience can find more confidence in you.

1. Listen

If you’ve ever worked with Narativ before, it’s likely we’ve already given you an earful on listening—and we’re not about to stop now. Listening is crucial in building any trust-based relationship. As a leader, you’ll never truly relate to the struggles of your team if you don’t first take the time to listen to what those struggles are, and indicate that people have permission to be open with you. 

Many leaders have a fear they’re going to start losing power the second they stop talking. Listening counteracts that false assumption, and it also makes the people you work with feel seen and valued.

Start by simply talking less. Leave more room in meetings and interactions for your team to voice their questions and concerns. When you do speak, try to ask questions that direct you toward a deeper understanding of the situation. Obviously, there are going to be situations where you are providing instruction and need to do a majority of the talking, but taking the time to listen on those other occasions will significantly improve the quality of your teaching because you’ll have a far better understanding of how the people you work with learn best.

2. Draw from personal experience

This one can be a little harder, especially for executives, but it’s arguably one of the more important approaches in establishing trust with your team. Willingness to talk with people and share personal stories is more than just a “tactic” to make yourself seem more approachable; it builds real connections

Think about it—most people are naturally prone to forming connections with others whose lives and experiences have parallels to their own. The more willing you are to share personal stories, the easier it will be for your people to connect with you, trust you and align with your mission for your team or your company. 

In a recent episode of the Story Talks podcast, Narativ CEO Jerome Deroy recounted a story about a speaker who had been worried about sharing a personal story about his father even though it would help illustrate the kinds of needs their company served. He didn’t want to share the story because he didn’t want to cry on stage in front of his business audience. However, he went forward with the story anyway—and he did end up crying. Instead of leaving the room like he feared, his audience leaned in. As a result of his presentation, everyone present was able to feel a far greater connection to the mission of the company and develop greater faith in the leadership

The bottom line is that peeling back the shiny business veneer and offering up a personal piece of yourself is vulnerable. It may be daunting to allow your emotions and your “real self” show up in a business setting, but if you are willing, it will only bolster understanding—for you and of you—and build trust in you as a leader.

3. Don’t be afraid to engage

Dr. Brene Brown, Ph.D says it best: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness. If it doesn’t feel vulnerable, the sharing is probably not constructive.” If you are holding onto any fear of opening yourself up to emotional engagement with those you are speaking to, it could very well be holding you back from actually reaching them in a meaningful way. 

Fear of looking weak or foolish is one of the primary things that holds anyone back from making a true difference in any setting—so it’s best to start experimenting with letting yourself be a bit more open when engaging in smaller group or one-to-one discussions with the people around you. 

Try it: the next time you’re listening to someone, if a personal connection arises for you that may have some big emotions attached to it, make a conscious choice to share rather than running from it. More often than not, the person will be grateful you were willing to be so open with them because it allows them space to be vulnerable themselves. 

The main point

We are not here to mandate vulnerability—on the contrary—it should be explored in your own way and at your own pace. Keep in mind that facing down the things that cause us discomfort is a catalyst for growth and anything worth having involves risk, persistence, and patience. So take you time, take baby steps, and know that every movement you make towards being more vulnerable will be a movement towards making better connections. If you would like to hear more about the importance of vulnerability in business, you can tune in to this episode of the Story Talks podcast. To learn about how business storytelling training can build communication skills for you and your team, schedule a free consult with our CEO, Jerome Deroy.

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