“A great leader needs to love and respect people, and he needs to be comfortable with himself and with the world. He also needs to be able to forgive himself and others. In other words, a leader needs grace.”
~ Leo Hindery, Jr.
Bill did his best to model fearlessness, capability, and decisiveness for the people he supervised—all the qualities associated with strong leadership. In all his interactions with them, though, they seemed anxious and afraid. In meetings, he could never seem to spark a robust discussion—they would just give lip service to his questions. He couldn’t understand why they acted just the opposite of the example he tried to set.
Bill didn’t realize that his attitude of invincibility was not actually setting a good example. Rather, playing the part of the fearless leader was stifling discussion and creativity. He was forgetting that success requires risks, and when taking risks, a leader is by nature in a place of vulnerability. His attitude that failure is not an option masked the reality that we all risk failure when we reach toward high goals. Pretending he was invincible showed his deep fear of failure, which is a weakness, not a strength. Like Bill, if you want to become a strong leader in your company, have the confidence to believe that even if you do fail on any one project, you’ll bounce back and succeed in the future. When strong leaders show vulnerability, it projects this confidence to the world.
That doesn’t mean you should walk around griping about your insecurities all day. Rather, just be comfortable enough in yourself to show you know you’re far from perfect, and learn to view mistakes and weakness as learning opportunities.
1. Being authentic
When you show your vulnerabilities, you are being authentic, and that helps others to see you as trustworthy. In other words, let people see your whole self rather than picking and choosing the aspects you want them to see. People can tell whether you’re being authentic or not, particularly when you work with them every day. When you’re authentic with them, they’ll learn to trust you more rather than feeling that on some level you’re deceiving them.
2. Creating a culture of openness
Talking about your own mistakes will help the people you manage and work with to feel comfortable talking about theirs too. This will help create a culture of learning from mistakes by examining, with honesty and transparency, what went wrong. The whole group will then learn from each individual’s experiences, rather than everyone keeping things bottled up inside.
Further, this culture of openness will help your team understand the full history of a project, rather than just knowing it succeeded or it failed. The team will understand how each decision played a part in reaching the final outcome.
Likewise, be transparent about what’s happening with the company, and if you don’t know something, say so. When employees know you’re doing your best to keep them informed, they’ll trust you more.
3. Making team members feel needed
A leader who’s afraid to be vulnerable might fear that if an employee is more intelligent or capable than him in certain ways, that employee might upstage him. A vulnerable leader has let go of the need to be the mastermind behind every decision. Remember that you don’t have to know how to solve every problem to be a good leader. You need to know how to find and nurture the people who do. Don’t feel threatened by their abilities—recruit them actively, and provide them with the mentorship and incentives that will help them succeed. Give team members meaningful responsibilities with opportunities to use their own creativity, and let them know you appreciate that they can do things that you can’t.
4. Being easier to work with
If you’re hard to approach at work, imagine how much energy it takes for people to confront you about their concerns. That energy would be much better spent on team projects than on this unnecessary stress. Being the first to admit your shortcomings makes you more approachable, and it shows insight and self-awareness. It also makes problems easier to correct, allowing work to flow more smoothly. Sharpening your communication skills by learning to listen actively, use open body language, and stay fully engaged will help you make the most of these conversations.
5. Learning to grow
Strong leaders proactively ask for feedback, which puts them in an inherently vulnerable position. They might sometimes feel dismayed by the feedback they receive, but they realize this feedback provides a valuable opportunity to hone the qualities of a great leader. By going outside of your comfort zone to ask for this feedback, you’ll move beyond the limitations that a false sense of invulnerability can impose.
As you become a stronger leader by showing vulnerability in these ways, your team members’ trust and respect for you will grow. Relax, take a deep breath, and let your ability to work with your own imperfection shine.
Make a list of five ways you can show your vulnerability with people you supervise. Try doing one every day over the course of a week. Do you notice a difference in how team members relate to you? Email Joel to discuss your results.