Vulnerability in Leadership

Vulnerability in Leadership: More than just a Buzzword? (Part 2)

In part 1 of this two-part article, “Vulnerability in Leadership: More than Just a Buzzword, I discussed vulnerability as a key leadership strength.  It’s an idea and principle that is increasingly referenced in leadership literature and in organisations. Despite this growing awareness, vulnerability is still usually associated with weakness. That’s unfortunate – because vulnerability is such a critical leadership quality that it deserves serious attention.

I also mentioned in part 1 that I, like many others, stand on the shoulders of giants like Dr Brown. I’m very excited to be heading to the US in November to complete the Dare to Lead accreditation program.  In it we will further explore concepts such as courage, vulnerability, shame, the gifts of imperfection, rising strong and brave, and deeper hearts and minds work. I look forward to sharing the learnings with clients here in Australia and abroad to develop effective leadership skills.

In part 1, we look at ‘what’ (what is vulnerability?) and ‘why’ (why we should care about vulnerability in leadership). In this article, we will focus on the ‘how’ – how to be a more effective leader by being more open, authentic and vulnerable.

Top Five Reasons We Should Care About Vulnerability

In summary, the business case for vulnerability is around five key benefits:

  1. Connection – In a technology-centric world, vulnerability allows us to connect with others, build stronger relationships and enhance job performance.
  2. Trust – Trust is an essential component of business effectiveness. High trust organisations experience 32x greater risk-taking, 11x more innovation, and 6x higher performance. (Edelman Trust Barometer)
  3. Innovation – You can’t have innovation without vulnerability. Most leaders know that innovation is good for business, but many still struggle to create nimble, agile and innovative cultures.
  4. To Partner is to Lead – If you want to create change in your organisation then you need to be more ‘leader’ than ‘manager’, and more ‘partner’ than leader. Learning to share power and leadership at the right times can release dormant potential within teams and organisations.
  5. Building Learning, Growth and Resilience – One of our primary tasks as leaders is to grow and develop confident, capable and resilient people into high-performance teams. Learning inherently requires vulnerability – taking ourselves outside our comfort zone.  If you’re not open and vulnerable, then you’re probably not learning.

The Being-Doing Paradox

Before we discuss how to be a more effective leader by being more open, authentic and vulnerable, it might be useful to explore being versus doing.

The Being-Doing Paradox is that to get more done (e.g. task accomplishment at work), we can often be trapped into believing that we must do more things. In our minds at least, we often seem to correlate doing with productivity. It’s what Michael Bungay Stainer calls ‘busy work’ rather than ‘good’ or ‘great work’. When we’re honest with ourselves though, we know that sometimes we are busy being busy with nothing much to show for it. Sound familiar?

The busy-ness epidemic has grown over the top of us like mould. It has kind of just crept up on us. The problem is that the ‘mould’ is now starting to block some of the sunlight. I have written about this before, but I continue to see people working harder and longer. I’m often left wondering when something will give. What will be the wake-up call for you and your organisation?

My belief is that if we want to be more productive, then we need to be less busy. We need to re-connect with being human rather than being busy.

There is a great article I often reference from James Galvin and Peter O’Donnell (Authentic Leadership: Balancing Doing and Being), that uses the metaphor of a tree. Unless we attend to the roots of the tree (i.e. Self, Framing, Character, and Alignment), then we will be weakened and severely buffeted by the strong winds of change (i.e. the branches and leaves). Ultimately, this will impact on our ability to effectively deploy our Self, our Skills, Practices, and Behaviours in a meaningful way (see diagram below).


Source: James Galvin and Peter O’Donnell (Authentic Leadership: Balancing Doing and Being), Systems Thinker, April 2005.

How Do We Nurture and Develop Vulnerability

An essential part of being able to benefit from vulnerability-based leadership is to be authentically vulnerable. While this may sound obvious, it’s worth re-stating.

To show genuine vulnerability, we have to be comfortable to be genuinely vulnerable – not put on a half-hearted show for the crowd. We must work on the roots of the tree for the trunk, branches, and leaves to be at their best.

Five Stages of Vulnerability: A Practical Guide to Brave Leadership

Based on our understanding of current thinking in the literature and our own experience coaching and consulting with leaders for more than two decades, we have formulated the Five Stages of Vulnerability.

The stages should be viewed more as ‘guides’ rather than empirically based development stages. They serve as a useful metaphor none-the-less.


Be Open

The first step in improving our capacity for vulnerability is to Be Open to the idea that we can always learn new things about ourselves (in particular) and about others. When working with leaders in our High-Performance Team Program, the biggest block in making progress is to think we have it all worked out.

Three things to improve openness:

  1. Feedback: Always look for opportunities to get real-time, meaningful feedback from trusted sources (as Brené Brown would say, not from people who like to occupy the ‘cheap seats’!).
  2. Assumptions: Assumptions hurt you and me. The only assumption we can safely make is that we don’t have all the information or data. It continues to amaze me how frequently people make a statement of ‘truth’, and because no-one responds or challenges them, they assume that everyone agrees!
  3. Curiosity: Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. If we want to learn about others, we must put ourselves out there. Be genuinely curious and actively find out about people’s stories. Ask questions and then listen, really listen.

Share More

The principle of Share More is linked to the first stage, Be Open. Sharing is caring. However, this is often one of the most misunderstood aspects of vulnerability. many people think it means lying on a couch and opening up about your childhood or life traumas. Share more of yourself – go beyond pleasantries and the expected. Lower your armour enough so you can show up authentically.

Three things to improve sharing more:

  1. Armour Down: This is the opposite of ‘armour up’. We need to drop the armour just enough for people to be able to see more of who we are. Let them in a bit more than you usually would. Admit you don’t know the answer to a business challenge, or that you too suffer from uncertainty from time to time.
  2. Be Honest: Being honest sounds like it is a given, but is it? When was the last time you withheld information at work (when you didn’t need to)? Or when did you tell a white lie to protect yourself or someone else? Speak the truth with authenticity and courage. As Brown would say, brave the wilderness.
  3. Generosity of Spirit: Being generous is like gift-giving for free – the other person gets the gift, but it doesn’t cost you anything. It’s a win-win. If we can give more and expect less, then we’ll each ultimately receive more anyway (kind of like the ‘circle of life’?).

Trust Others

Trust, by its very definition, means taking a risk. I’m not talking about risks where you put yourself and others in great danger. I’m talking about risks that you might ‘logically’ ordinarily reject. For example, I like the quote from the movie “We Bought a Zoo”, where Benjamin Mee (the Dad played by Matt Damon) says to his 14-year old son Dylan (played by Colin Ford), who was apprehensive about showing his true feelings for a girl says, “Sometimes you just need 20 seconds of insane courage”.

Three things to improve trusting others:

  1. Trust Others: We often talk about trusting others in our teams or other colleagues, but how much do we demonstrate it?(I write in more detail on this in my book Leadership Without Silver Bullets). Our inability to trust people as much as we could is a hangover from the industrial, mechanistic age where we discovered control as a management tool.Does control work? Yes. Are there better alternatives? Yes. Free people up from traditional organisational constraints to innovate and be their best. If they don’t do their job or don’t do it well, then it’s our job to guide, coach and develop them, so we can genuinely hold them accountable instead of blaming and shaming.
  2. Change Your Relationship to Failure: As much as we protest in organisations that we encourage innovative, agile practices which are more iterative than structured, I call BS on it. All organisations – or human systems – send double messages. Failure is a good example where the messaging is ‘failure is okay’ but when it happens, watch how the system reacts. As a leader, how do you come across when something goes wrong?
  3. Defy Logic: This requires us to over-ride the ‘caution circuit breaker’. What if it doesn’t work out and I’m embarrassed? Within reason, do it anyway. Put yourself out there by having a go. Most of the time, others will feed off your courage and come along for the ride.

Take Risks

Take Risks sounds like Trust Others (above), but it’s more than that. This is personal. It’ what David Maister talks about in his trust formula (Trust = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy / Self-Orientation).

People trust others with whom they feel comfortable discussing difficult agendas. Business can be intensely personal – and human emotion is an integral part of just about everything we do. Establishing intimacy is about building and accepting mutually increasing levels of risk in a relationship.

Three things to improve taking risks:

  1. Risk a Little-Gain a Lot: Taking risks means that you will fail. You will fall. And you will end up with egg on your face. But isn’t that what ‘risk’ means?Sometimes the risk-reward relationship may not be so clear, not easily plotted on a graph, but do it anyway. Risk doesn’t mean putting others in harm’s way or abandoning them. They must feel like they’re still supported. My father-in-law talks about being ‘taught’ how to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool and having to struggle back to the edge – that’s not what we want to do to others.
  2. Set Boundaries: It is important to maintain boundaries when we’re taking more risks by being open, trusting more, and putting ourselves out there. This means setting boundaries for ourselves and others. How much autonomy will you give someone? How much will you share? How much of your personal story will I disclose?
  3. Be the First: Extend trust – first. The primitive part of our brain wants to protect us physically (will this lion eat me?) and psychologically (is it safe for me to….?). It is therefore very easy to wait for others to extend trust or right wrongs in the relationship.However, try going first. Don’t wait for others. Extend trust as often as possible, including in a fractured relationship. Have the conversation. Mend the rift. Move forward.

Stay On Track doesn’t mean stagnate. It means continually investing in understanding the impact we have on others. We need to be continually self-monitoring and seeking feedback from those around us. Like any relationship that we care about, we can’t ‘set and forget’ vulnerability. The moment we do that, the universe is likely to give us a nasty reminder that this stuff requires constant attention.

Importantly, we can only help others grow if we are also growing. We need to be humble enough to understand – and believe – that we can learn from anyone and everyone. I discovered more about myself raising three children than I did from 100 personal development courses!

Three ways to stay on track:

  1. Continue to Invest in Yourself: Do the work. Remain curious. Don’t buy into the BS that you ‘can’t teach a dog new tricks’. This is a convenient story that we tell ourselves to keep us in the cheap seats and out of the arena. It avoids confronting things we may not like about ourselves, and particularly things that others don’t find to be a positive quality or behaviour.
  2. Encourage & Support Others: Good leaders work hard to create the conditions for others to feel they can take ever-increasing risks. People watch your every move as a leader. They are taking their cues from you in terms of how they respond in the moment to someone who is being vulnerable. We must demonstrate that we have their back. If they cross a boundary, then point it out with skill and compassion.
  3. Psychological Safety: Consciously work to build an environment where people feel safe to voice their opinions, to say what they’re thinking and feeling, or to take reasonable risks. Your legacy as a leader shouldn’t be limited to how many projects you delivered or the results you achieved. Your true legacy as a leader is the culture you created and leave behind.

In this article, we briefly recapped the importance of vulnerability (discussed in detail in part 1 of this two-part paper “Vulnerability in Leadership: More than Just a Buzzword). In particular, its role in building connection, trust, innovation, partnership as leadership and growing and developing people.

We used the Being-Doing Paradox – the paradox that describes how our tendency to work on doing more, taking us away from being more, degrades our productivity.

With the groundwork in place, we introduced the five stages – or more accurately guideposts – to build and develop our capacity and capability to be a more effective vulnerability-based leader.

The five stages of Be Open; Share More; Trust Others; Take Risks and Stay on Track provide a framework to continue the lifelong journey of becoming the best version of ourselves. This builds our capability to make a difference in the lives of those around us – in our teams, organisations, schools, communities, and families.

Vulnerability in Leadership: More than just a Buzzword? (Part 2)