Is Vulnerability the Kryptonite of Leadership?

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In doing some research on leadership, I came across an interesting fact. One of the biggest fears that leaders have is being vulnerable. Why? There are two themes at play here. One is the belief that being vulnerable is a sign of weakness. The other is the fear of appearing too vulnerable. So, let’s set the record straight.

I want to first look at being too vulnerable. I think Howard Schultz, former and now current CEO of Starbucks, said it best. “The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability. When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.” The key phrase in this statement is “vulnerability and sensibility.” Schultz is saying that a leader must be vulnerable but must be sensible about it. You don’t share everything. You share only the things that are necessary in the situation you are in. Which is very similar to Dr. Brene Brown’s formula for vulnerability: vulnerability – boundaries ¹ vulnerability. Without boundaries, without using vulnerability sensibly, one is not demonstrating it.

Now, let’s look at vulnerability being a weakness. In a research dissertation, Lopez (2018) found a correlation between vulnerability and courage. She found that because being vulnerable is risky, one cannot be vulnerable without being courageous. So, you cannot have one without the other. If a leader is courageous, can she also be considered weak? I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, returning to Dr. Brown’s work on vulnerability, she is pretty blunt about it: “…vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” So again, being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness. Being vulnerable is a sign of courage. Finally, a leader cannot be authentic and not be vulnerable. Authenticity is a linchpin of trust. Building trust then requires a leader to be courageous by showing vulnerability. And the circle is complete.

So, do not let someone tell you that being vulnerable as a leader is a sign of weakness. The data tells us just the opposite: vulnerability is a sign of strength.

References:

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Random House: New York, NY.Vulnerability

Lopez, S. O., "Vulnerability in Leadership: The Power of the Courage to Descend" (2018). Industrial-Organizational Psychology Dissertations. 16.

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