In my experience, vulnerability is one of the most misunderstood topics when it comes to leadership.
There are many inspirational gurus who posit the idea that great leaders are willing to be vulnerable, and that their success in motivating and inspiring is dependent on this skill set. Daniel Goleman makes a persuasive case for this in his book Primal Leadership (with McKee and Boyatizis), and other experts like Gar Reynolds and Brene Brown (to name only a few) make compelling cases for the power of vulnerability.
The confusion in my opinion is that we too often connect that vulnerability to the shameful things about ourselves. We immediately think that to be vulnerable, we must reveal some part of ourselves that we think is broken. The result is often that an audience or a group will recoil and disconnect, rather than lean into what the leader is saying.
As Seth Godin says in his new book The Icarus Deception, “But if we allow shame to be part of our vulnerability, we allow it to destroy our work.” (It’s one thing to be vulnerable with our shame in front of our therapist or best friend and another thing entirely with our team.) The reason is that we only feel that leader’s sense of woundedness and neediness. We do not want to follow someone who needs us to take care of him.
The contrapositive of this is the power of being vulnerable about the things we truly believe in. Sharing our passion for an idea, our zeal for doing something the right way, or our code of ethics even when they go against the norms are all example of courageous sharing without the wound.
Is it scary? Absolutely.
This is the moment when we speak up in front of a group of people in defense of someone who is not there (without using the moment to make ourselves seem “holier than thou”).
This is the moment when we admit where we made tactical errors while not becoming defensive of our vision.
These are the moments when we don’t hedge our bets, deflect accountability or make excuses for our work.
The more vulnerable we can be in this way, the stronger and more trustworthy we become. The more we understand this distinction with vulnerability, the more powerful a tool it is in our hands.