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Is there a place for vulnerability in modern leadership?

by Maya Wettenhall

Hands together symbolising teamwork

Traditionally, being a vulnerable leader has been given a bad rap, with vulnerability in workplaces often equated to weakness. However, more than ever in 2020 following the outbreak of the global pandemic, the place for vulnerability in leadership is increasingly seen as more authentic and courageous.

While traditionally leaders have been encouraged to provide the perfect example for their teams, with an unwavering knowledge in their field of expertise and the ability to make the right decisions, modern leadership skills are increasingly based around emotional intelligence and the ability to lead others to create value. Modern leaders will often make people uncomfortable, as they work on a different set of skills than we are used to.

Why vulnerability is becoming a bold act in leadership

It has been shown that vulnerable teams are more collaborative and breed innovation. Leaders open to understanding and exercising vulnerability at work, can create an environment that fosters openness, willingness to learn, and most importantly – growth, meaning vulnerability is fast becoming a powerful tool in a leaders’ toolbox. Tom Harkin of Tomorrow Architects has previously written about how to close the gap in leadership and how this creates a more authentic leader.

Authenticity exists in psychological safety. Vulnerability in the past has been seen as a negative aspect to a leader, but as we learn more about our own psyche – vulnerability breeds psychological safety. And a team that feels psychologically safe is willing to be more open. It’s about peeling back the onion to the layers within your team. We are taught to have a tough exterior, but by leading from the front and being vulnerable we create an environment of expression, creativity and most importantly emotional safety.

Admitting mistakes can breed improvement

At work, we focus so much on time flexing our strengths that often don’t stop to learn from our mistakes or understand the reasons behind how why we fail, which is imperative to improvement. When raising children, we are encouraged to let them make their own mistakes, helping them learn and build resilience so they know what to do the next time. The principle remains the same in business. Even in the workplace, we are growing to accept that our leaders don’t always know all the answers, creating a place for honesty, consultation and collaboration over power and perfection.

If leaders can create an environment where it’s safe to ‘fail fast’ and learn from mistakes, teams can better collaborate and continuously improve. Solutions can arise from mistakes. The confidence we have in our ability to fail and to learn from them is imperative. Failing fast helps us to learn quickly.

Openness encourages genuine connection

Genuine connection is a concept increasingly lost in workplaces, especially as we operate more in the digital space but social connection, even in a virtual world, allows us to relate to other people’s perspectives and ideas. Being open and showing vulnerability allows personalities and stories to come to the surface, creating networks of connectivity among teams and beyond – encouraging collaboration and positive working environments.

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, spoke about the necessity of connection in her book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. Following the sudden death of her husband, Sandberg allowed herself to be vulnerable to her team and creating a space for conversations to be had where employees could receive help to recover from loss and crises.

2020 pushed us to communicate online, through video calls and more emails than ever before – meaning we’ve lost some of our in-person face-to-face connection. The next step to overcome from a more remote team is pushing for that psychological safety without human interaction. How does this work? There isn’t an answer to that… yet.

Asking for help creates collaboration

As 2020 demanded many organisations action their crisis management plans, workplaces are becoming being more adept at dealing with change and business failings. Many difficult decisions have been made, some overnight and some over the course of the unpredictable pandemic. The issue with the pandemic for leaders is that there is no rule book on it. Many answers came through collaboration and consultation with experts, and in the ability to ask for help when needed. When leaders share their vulnerability and wave their hand for help, they can gain new perspective, an encourage collaboration and innovation, as well as becoming more relatable. This can also allow leaders to learn and develop new strengths.

When people share, great work is done

Ego is great in some aspects of business. Believing in yourself and being able to put that belief forward will get many people far in their careers. However, there’s a time and a place for ego – and sometimes the most impactful thing a leader can do it to sit and listen. Providing psychological safety where people can share opinions, provide feedback and be involved in decision making creates high performing teams.

When leaders ask the tough questions rather than thinking they have all the answers, they give themselves the chance to hear and embrace their team’s ideas. “There is no team without trust”, as stated by Head of Industry at Google Paul Santagata. Creating teams with trust is about everyone working toward the common goal that works for everyone, this being social capital – a set of shared values that allows individuals to work together in a group to effectively achieve a common purpose. Not only is the work shared, but also the ideas and therefore the end result is the same.

Being a good leader isn’t always about you – it’s about the people around you. Vulnerability can be a difficult trait to embrace for many leaders, especially since admitting your mistakes and asking for help aren’t qualities traditionally associated with successful leaders. However, what 2020 has taught us more than ever is that we live in an imperfect world where mistakes can and will be made, and we are often presented more questions than answers. One of the boldest acts a modern leader can do is to positively embrace their vulnerability, and encourage others to do the same.

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