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Why vulnerability will be a key trait for leaders post-COVID-19

By its very definition, vulnerability seems incompatible with leadership. Yet as Merilee Kern notes, “When it’s genuine, showing vulnerability can foster a magnificent mélange of respect, admiration, empathy, and loyalty.”

Why vulnerability will be a key trait for leaders post-COVID-19
[Photo: Engin Akyurt/Pexels]

Leaders are understandably concerned about demonstrating vulnerability. In fact, the first result after Googling the phrase “definition of vulnerability” is: “Susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” With this decidedly ominous and predominant denotation, it’s no wonder that it has taken a seismic shift—namely a threat against humanity itself, in the form of a global pandemic—to prompt the C-suite to collectively get out of their comfort zone and reveal more of their true selves.

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Fortune does favor the bold, as it’s said, and those leaders who’ve taken that leap of faith to reveal a more humble and human part of themselves have hit perception pay dirt. Sigmund Freud predicted as much, having famously mused, “Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.” It’s a notion with a few interpretations and applications for business leaders.

One is that the very act of exposing your true self inherently builds strength of character, proffering valuable self-improvement. Another elucidation, which can certainly exist in tandem with the first, is that operating in a more revealing manner will have an emotional impact on others, who will thus regard you more favorably, fortifying your support base. The idea here is that, by demonstrating vulnerability in your actions and choices, you will be deemed courageous, approachable, relatable, honest, optimistic, transparent, grounded, or a litany of other highly coveted personal traits.

Leaders who unabashedly show their vulnerable side are also often believed to be honorable. In this day and age, where heroes become zeroes in a click, there are few greater virtues than being considered to be someone who is fair and does the right thing—and not discretionarily, but always. Honorable leadership presents many opportunities to function in a more positively vulnerable way. Leaders gain invaluable respect and trust by asking more questions (and valuing the input) rather than dictating, forgiving mistakes rather than punishing, and then parlaying these situations into learning and growth opportunities for all involved.

Wholly owning and acknowledging their mistakes can feel like it goes against the grain for leaders who are used to presenting a more polished and perfectionist front. Embracing this discomfort can spur opportunity.

“People and organizations don’t grow in a zone of comfort; we grow, progress, and evolve in a zone of discomfort,” notes Bill Treasurer, founder of Giant Leap Consulting. “So, a leader has to role-model courage by doing hard, scary, and challenging things and then help the rest of us do those things too.”

Further, a leader conceding to fear or anxiety in the face of adversity can also be endearing.

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“The more transparent a leader can be, the safer, more secure and more trusting those being led will feel,” notes Mike Cohen, founder of talent sourcing and recruiting company Wayne Technologies. “A leader who can share with their employees where they are, for better or worse, will be able to connect with their employees, gain that crucial buy-in to the mission, and establish a sense of trust that will oftentimes increase retention even in the face of adversity.”

When a leader makes mistakes, it also presents an opportunity not only to score popularity points by admitting them but also showcases an aptitude for being agile and knowing how to adeptly pivot as obstacles present. In fact, failure can make a leader that much more relatable, serving as a salient silver lining.

“I think it is courageous to fail,” says Camille Burns, CEO of Women Presidents’ Organization. “A leader’s ability to change after mistakes or failures inspires trust and motivates a team. It is particularly important to be able to reset after a disappointing setback. You need to own what is not perfect. You also need to own that what you learned is a result of failure.”

This kind of admission and ownership also speaks to authenticity. Another key perception point that leaders gain when they display vulnerability is that they’re seen as being “real.” This involves operating (i.e., speaking, presenting information, and making decisions) in a way that may not necessarily reflect well on themselves or their past decisions when taken at face value, but that upholds the spirit of honesty and integrity—even at the risk of undermining their own self-interests. Being willing to take that proverbial bullet for your people can perhaps inspire loyalty like nothing else. In fact, Kean Graham, CEO of AdTech company MonetizeMore, concurs that vulnerable leadership requires honesty, even at your own expense. He proposes that it’s a form of authenticity that “breeds followers who would die for their leader.”

Such principled behavior that’s modeled by a leader can (and should) even be contagious, suggests life coach Pamela Savino. “If people witness a leader’s willingness to step into vulnerable territory, harboring a spirit of authenticity and growth, they will be more willing to do so themselves . . . a leader’s actions set the tone and pave the way for others’ behaviors.”

Business executive Andrew Wiedner of Core Spaces also advocates the infectious nature of leaders who embrace their vulnerabilities, citing that, “When you’re unafraid to expose your own flaws and weaknesses, it inspires others to do the same, and allows trust to be built within your teams and organization.”

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In fact, some assert that the kind of authenticity these vulnerable behaviors breed trumps bravery. “I think it’s important for leaders to appear courageous, but being credible and authentic is at least equally important, but arguably more so,” asserts Darren Roos, CEO of enterprise software developer IFS. “I think it’s important not to be afraid to show vulnerability at times like these because people want honesty and transparency more than they want bluster and bravado,” he says. “It’s inevitable many will realize you don’t have all the answers, and acknowledging this and retaining their trust will be more important than appearing infallible,” Roos says. “A leader who is prepared to show their vulnerability and still show up to get the job done is more likely to be perceived as courageous as a leader who presents as a fearless idiot.”

Michael Provitera, D.B.A., executive leadership trainer and author of the book Level Up Leadership, underscores the importance of authenticity, especially in the context of exuding a strong resolve. “Leadership courage may fail, and it is important to be an authentic leader, understanding that failure is an option,” he says. “It happens and leaders must deal with it frankly and in an open manner. The key is to be an authentic leader that knows his or her courage limitations.”

Provitera further clarifies that when a leader knows their authentic self, not only do they project courage and honesty but, in doing so, also become more humane. “The key is to practice the habit of not having to be right all the time,” he says. “In my own experience, this is sadly a difficult feat for all too many business leaders.”

When it’s genuine, showing vulnerability can foster a magnificent mélange of respect, admiration, empathy, and loyalty that cultivates a strength of leadership that simply cannot be achieved or emulated any other way. It’s mass bonding in a highly pure form, which is what makes the effect so powerful and indelibly worthy of pursuit.


Merilee Kern, MBA, is an internationally regarded brand analyst, strategist, and futurist who serves as chief strategy officer for the Ascendant Group, an industry-leading CEO and personal branding agency. She is a member of the Forbes Business Council.

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