Magic happens when leaders wear their vulnerability on their sleeve
People admire leaders for their skills and love them for their vulnerabilities. When leaders share their challenges, failures, and uncertainties, their team members feel confident to reciprocate with their feedback, ideas and hopes, which creates joyful teams.
There is a widely prevalent conventional myth of leadership that good leaders are decisive, strong, and have all the answers. I have observed the styles of several successful leaders and believe that this myth needs to be broken.
It is not true that leaders have it all sorted. They are often making it up as they go along; they are human after all. A lady boss whom I worked with once told me, “Some leaders look like they are on top of everything; in reality, if they don’t have self-doubt they may not be stretching enough.”
So, why do leaders feel the need to disguise their vulnerability? All of them fear being seen for what they are. They like to wear a costume of toughness and present their best self in high definition. They want to be the most important person in the room.
However, leaders who endear themselves to their teams are those who honestly show their vulnerabilities and imperfections. Leaders who open up and express fear, regret and embarrassment are seen as authentic. The people they work with want to see the true self of leaders and not the image the leaders want to project.
When leaders share their challenges, failures, and uncertainties, their team members feel confident to reciprocate with their feedback, ideas and hopes, which creates joyful teams.
People admire leaders for their skills and love them for their vulnerabilities. Casandra Brené Brown, professor (University of Texas, Austin), author, and podcast host, known for her work on shame, vulnerability, and leadership, says, “One who is not vulnerable or imperfect can be dangerous.”
History is replete with fearless and brazen leaders who have driven the world towards disaster.
Alan Mullaly, who is credited with saving the Ford Motor Company, bringing it back from the brink of bankruptcy and delivering 19 successive quarters of profit, is seen as a role model for openness and vulnerability.
Doug Parker, who was the CEO of American Airlines between 2001 and 2023, is another exemplar of a successful leader who converted vulnerability into a virtue.
The CEO of an Indian technology company, who had an exceptional record at the helm for five years, once told me that he entered every quarterly board meeting thinking it would be his last.
Turning vulnerability into an advantage
How do these leaders make vulnerability work to their advantage?
For starters, they know what they do not know and feel no shame in asking others for help. They speak more often about what they do not know, rather than what they know. They pay complete attention while listening to others and use what they learn from this to improve plans. They overcome their lack of knowledge (genuine vulnerability) with sheer hard work.
Vulnerability helps them ask better questions that help them formulate better solutions in an increasingly complex world. In fact, the best leaders wear their vulnerability on their sleeve.
Vulnerability is not the Achilles heel of leadership. Vulnerability is different from unpredictability or gullibility. It is not an emotional outpouring, like in a therapy session.
In 1991, Hollis Harris, the then-CEO of struggling Continental Airlines, told his 42,000 employees that the company was in difficult times, the prospects were dim, and that employees should pray for the future of the company. The next day, he was sacked. Hollis, no doubt, demonstrated vulnerability, but instead of leadership, what he showed was helplessness. If he had combined his openness with a plan of action to create positive outcomes, he would have been successful.
Leaders must be conscious; they are in positions of significant influence and impact, and a whisper becomes a shout.
In the early hours of 14 Jun 2017, a massive fire engulfed the Grenfell Tower in London. Dany Cotton, the commissioner of the fire brigade, did a phenomenal job of dealing with it. In her first public communication that evening, she was at pains to explain that the firefighters (including herself), while being undoubtedly tough and strong, were also human and vulnerable. She said that no one had seen distress on such a scale and her team’s mental well-being was her priority and she would provide for their trauma counselling. Was she being too soft?
Does vulnerability have anything to do with gender? Those are questions for further study, but I would conjecture that she was not imprisoned by the stereotypical expectations that surround masculine leaders. And, in that, she had set a new benchmark for leadership, which won her incredible respect, support, and understanding from her team.
The role of a leader extends beyond strategic thinking, driving performance, and being determined and resilient. Being vulnerable adds a wonderful quality to the mix and humanises the leader.
The author is Chief Communications Officer at Azim Premji Foundation.
Edited by Swetha Kannan
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)