[YS Learn] Why it is increasingly important for leaders to reveal their vulnerable side

A report published in Harvard Business Review report backs the power of vulnerability and decodes how it can help leaders helm their teams and companies better.
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For long, leadership has been associated with toughness, strength, confidence, and power. But the coronavirus pandemic showed us that leaders who had the courage to reveal their vulnerabilities did well. Dominant or forceful leaders, on the other hand, didn’t really thrive. 

Citing an example, an Harvard Business Review (HBR) report said- “Consider how Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the virus, displayed fearless bravado, and undermined the calls to wear a mask or socially distance, putting others at risk. Contrast this with the candid and data-driven approach taken by Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, or Sanna Marin, which saved thousands of lives and mitigated the economic damage to Germany, New Zealand, and Finland.”

Backed by research and data, Brene Brown, author, researcher, and public speaker, points out that leadership is about vulnerability, shame, and empathy. For over a decade, Brene has been speaking about the power of vulnerability, which she adds cannot be separated from courage. Her book, Dare to Lead, emphasis the importance of vulnerability in leadership. 

It is becoming increasingly important for leaders to be honest, smart, and caring even while taking potentially unpopular and tough actions. This is more so when the idea is to help the organisation move ahead. The HBR report said showing or creating a false sense of invincibility harms people.

Many reports have said that emerging from the current crisis is more complex than any other economic downturn. It is therefore important to be agile and learn different things. 

Apt and adaptable leaders are those who understand their own limitations and also work to grow their and other people’s potential.

They strive to build inclusive team environments that foster constructive criticism and dissent. They have the humility to accept mistakes, and are courageous and curious to create open communications. 

The power to embrace the truth 

The report said: “Above all, they embrace truth: They are more interested in understanding reality than in being right and are not afraid to accept that they were wrong. This allows them to welcome criticism — not because they like it any more than the rest of us, but because they know it’s necessary in order to make progress. Altogether, this is a very different type than the macho-style leader who is rarely right yet seldom in doubt.” 

In her book, Dare to Lead, Brene says courage is a collection of four skill sets that can be taught, observed, and measured. The four skill sets are: rumbling with vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust, and learning to rise. 

The HBR report explained there are leaders who have excelled because they’ve been vulnerable

One example the report cites is of Satya Nadella, who resurrected Microsoft by transforming its culture based on his own core drivers: humility, curiosity, and constant learning. There also is Oprah Winfrey, who became the first black female billionaire in history thanks to a multitalented entrepreneurial career that put vulnerability and authenticity at the centre, living her life “inside out”

“And a third is Howard Schultz: When he returned to Starbucks in 2007, after the business experienced a substantial decline, he opened up with his employees and was transparent about his challenges and vulnerabilities, which helped drive a return to growth. Although they and others like them have been admired, vulnerable leaders collectively haven’t received the widespread public attention and accolades that macho, heroic leaders have garnered,” the report said. 

Building vulnerability 

Entrepreneurship is a hard road to tread. There will be disappointments and setbacks. While many may choose to put on armour and keep a brave face, Brene said it was also important to show your human side and vulnerability

The report points out key ways to build vulnerability: 

Ask for help: Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. But leadership isn’t about building everything on your own; it is about building a team that can help you build your vision. The HBR report said leadership “isn’t about the person in charge. It is unlocking the forces that bring people together as a team”. This requires you to be honest about your vulnerabilities and your need for their support. This authenticity will increase their commitment to you and will unleash their ideas and energy to tackle challenges at hand. It will make your team stronger.

Tell the truth: Vulnerability begins by being candid, by honestly explaining and opening up about your perspective. It isn’t easy to tell people the truth and be open, but leaders need to do it. 

Admit your mistakes and apologise: “When you do so, no matter how disappointed people are, they will appreciate your honesty and trust you more than if you lie to them. The short-term sense of invincibility you may experience when you refrain from admitting your mistakes is (a) short-lived and (b) delusional. Failing to admit you were wrong is an ineffective strategy to persuade others that you are right, and when this strategy fails, people will question not only your judgment but also your self-awareness,” the report said. 

Get out of your comfort zone: Leaders, like everyone else, have their comfort zones. They begin operating on autopilot and most times repeat what worked in the past. But that has its failings, too. The report said sometimes playing to your own strengths can actually be a recipe for disaster. 

Unless you work on your defects, you won’t develop new skills. Yes, this will make you seem vulnerable in the short term because your performance will always suffer when you are learning a new skill or behaviour. But it can only make you stronger in the long term.”

Engage others in your journey of self-improvement 

In short, vulnerable leadership in a world of extreme uncertainty and interdependence is vital to making progress when answers are not clear cut and anyone in the organization may be able to contribute vital knowledge or ideas. As one of us (Amy) noted in her book The Fearless Organization, “For knowledge work to flourish, the workplace must be one where people feel able to share their knowledge!” the report added. 

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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