Time to Get Vulnerable: Why The Best Leaders View Vulnerability as a Strength

Jim Haudan
Jim Haudan,
CEO,
Root Inc.
Katharine Lind
Katharine Lind,
Consultant,
Root Inc.

Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, once said, “The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability… When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.”

Almost everyone seems to think that being vulnerable is a bad thing – it implies that you’re weak or defenseless. In fact, when someone is willing to admit they’re vulnerable, it demonstrates a level of trust and respect with the person or people you’re opening up to.  Great leaders recognize the importance of bringing vulnerability to work because it is the foundation for open and nonjudgmental communications. Vulnerability fuels the strongest relationships, and ultimately, helps bring even more success to your organization. The boldest act of a leader is to be publicly vulnerable.

While it may not come naturally to leaders or people – no one wants to open himself or herself up to being emotionally challenged – vulnerability can mean a complete transformation in relationships and performance.

Being vulnerable in the workspace doesn’t mean you walk around with a box of tissues and share your deepest, most personal secrets with everyone. So what does being vulnerable in the work environment look like?  Being vulnerable at work simply means you are ready to let your guard down, put aside any pretenses, and be your real self. A vulnerable leader is one who checks his or her ego at the door, is comfortable with not having all the answers, and is ready to wholeheartedly embrace the perspectives, opinions, and thoughts of his or her people.

A leader who shows vulnerability is someone who stops feeling compelled to be the first one with an idea or the first one to answer a question. Becoming vulnerable requires a mindset shift where you start to see the aspirations of the business through the eyes of the people you lead. This invites them to become more involved in – and in fact to become the drivers of – the conversation. When you are vulnerable, your employees feel more connected, invested, respected, and vital to the organization. Everyone benefits.

Boldly vulnerable leaders are exceptional at discovering the authentic perspective of the people they lead and continuously see the business through the eyes of the people they serve. Here are three key things to think about so you can put titles aside and open up the lines of honest communication and vulnerability in the office:

  1. Change your view on vulnerability. Leaders feel an almost constant pressure to perform at a higher level than others. They are the ones expected to paint a vision, develop the ideas to execute the vision, and answer the tough questions along that path. But sometimes the boldest thing a leader can do is to just sit and listen – rather than drive the conversation. No, this doesn’t mean you’re lazy. In fact, it’s enabling you to fully hear and embrace your people’s ideas.
  2. Accept vulnerability as a strength. Being vulnerable isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t make you weak; it actually makes you a better leader because you stop wasting energy protecting yourself from what you think other people shouldn’t see. It allows you to start showing your authentic self. By accepting vulnerability as a strength, you stop worrying about having every answer and realize that yes, it’s okay to even – gasp – be wrong. Regardless of what you don’t know, or whatever skill you don’t possess, your people are there to assist. You helped put these people here and it’s important to leverage all they bring to the table.
  3. Practice and be a student of vulnerability. Most of us need to practice being vulnerable because we’re used to working to impress others through our actions and words. A vulnerable leader is an active listener who isn’t worried about saying the “right” thing and can remain engaged and focused on the conversation. This results in being able to better motivate and encourage your people as they develop the next great idea and then work shoulder to shoulder to bring it to life. And when your ego creeps back up, ask yourself “why?” Remind yourself that it’s not about you, but the people around you.

Now that you have a better understanding of what vulnerability means when applied to the workplace, here is an example of how it works:

As part of a leadership program Root Inc. helped run, the CEO of an organization asked his franchisee leaders to write down their most pressing questions – no topic was off limits. Their questions included: How will corporate help us drive consistency? How do we know you will take action and stick to this plan? How will corporate drive greater accountability across the organization?

Root Inc. facilitators organized the questions into 10 themes, and the CEO stood up and addressed each topic. He started the conversation in a very honest, vulnerable manner by saying he probably wouldn’t have all the answers, but he wanted to let everyone know that they had been heard.

Reactions were positive. People finally felt listened to and felt that this time was different – it wasn’t just a new flavor of the week. The CEO made himself accountable by sharing the greatest issues facing franchisees. He could never say, “I didn’t realize that was an issue.” He now could say, “I understand the greatest challenges facing our franchisees, and we are working on managing them for the long term.”

A leader telling his people that he doesn’t have the answers? It doesn’t get much more vulnerable than that.