Why vulnerability is a business leader's superpower

The very idea of being vulnerable feels horrible, yet it is a fast track to deep human connection - something professor Lynda Holt says every leader needs

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Vulnerability has a bad rap. It is synonymous with weakness, fragility and people who need looking after, like vulnerable children, the frail, the elderly, or even those who don’t cope too well.

At work, we often try hard to mitigate our perceived vulnerabilities – and when we are talking about systems and widgets that’s a good thing, but when we are talking about humans, and leaders, not so much.

If you’ve spent your whole career perfecting that veneer of outer calm, while internally racing for answers and trying not to look weak or vulnerable, you won’t be alone. We’ve been led to believe that that’s what good leaders do. Covering up our vulnerabilities, toughing it out, powering through or being a tower of strength is at best overrated, and probably downright harmful to both your own wellbeing and those you lead. In the very short term, this toughness might help you through a tricky situation; in the longer term it drives you towards behaviour that masks how you feel, creates barriers and potentially reduces trust among your team.

Vulnerability is about connection, deep human-to-human connectedness, and therefore it is your superpower. But it is only your superpower when you learn to manage it and use it for good – just like in the comics!

Vulnerability occurs when you are uncertain, at risk or exposed in some way, so no wonder it feels yucky. If you really think about what you do as a leader, you are vulnerable much of the time. Think about it. Every time you do something new, have a difficult conversation, make a mistake, implement something unpopular or say no – you are vulnerable. The only way you avoid vulnerability is to stay firmly in your comfort zone, work hard to keep things the same and hope you don’t get found out.

Maybe, instead of covering it up, it’s time to embrace our vulnerability and use it to lead from a place of genuine connection, understanding and inclusion. Showing your more human side takes courage, sometimes a leap of faith, and a whole lot of practice before it stops feeling weird. Here’s why it works. As humans, we need to belong, and to feel part of something, that we are safe and that we are contributing in some way. A leader who has the courage to ask for help, to involve others in decisions, and gives people the time and space to express themselves offers people something to belong to – and in return often amplifies trust, loyalty and contribution.

Vulnerability is not an emotional free for all; it isn’t simply about saying I don’t know, crying in public or, worse, telling everyone your innermost secrets. It is a superpower that enables you to move people from where they are to where they need to be – for their wellbeing as well as for the good of the business. Here are five critical ways you ‘do’ vulnerability, without overexposure or unmanageable risk.

  1. Boundaries make vulnerability possible – you can’t be all things to all people all of the time. Make sure you have good boundaries around behaviour, time and respect, and ensure your people know what they are, and that you enforce them when necessary.

  2. Share only what you are comfortable with – personal disclosure is your choice; you decide what and with whom you share stuff. It’s perfectly OK to acknowledge you need some support or space without explaining the context.

  3. Keep your judgement in check – judgement is often a self-protection strategy; it distances you from things you fear or dislike. It also shuts people down, stops them from sharing problems or mistakes, and destroys trust and connection.

  4. Make it safe – for you and your team. Listen, create agency, encourage discussion and ideas and stay respectful, even when you disagree.

  5. Remember the aim is deep human connection – use your story or your experiences to help others understand, relate and access solutions for themselves.

In the end, it is your connectedness that makes you a great leader, not toughness, not being all knowing and not being the last one standing. So, stay connected with your people, your mission and your contribution, and use vulnerability to build that connection, draw others in and make the difference that matters to you.

Lynda Holt is CEO of Health Service 360 and an honorary professor of social leadership at the University of Salford