It’s no secret that at times, leadership can be isolating. As a leader, you feel the desire to be just another member of the team but know that deep down there are weights, burdens, and challenges that need to be kept private. It is a delicate balance between building relationships and being the leader your team needs you to be. That balance can lead to real strain, and you may feel pressure to be your best self 24/7.
What helped me find this balance is reminding myself that I am human. You, your employees, and your customers are all human. Everyone has their own hopes, fears, and realities.
If you emotionally distance yourself from your team and focus on the “employee” and “boss” labels, you forget to make human decisions. Making unbiased, business-savvy choices is undeniably important, but erring on the human-decision side has led me to better results. Employees will support you as a leader when they get to know you as a human. That’s how CEOs can be vulnerable: Start with the human factor.
Embrace Your Own Vulnerability
Every leadership style is different, so vulnerability may not mean the same thing to every leader. For me, vulnerability means admitting when I make a mistake, being open about what drives me, and showing emotion (within boundaries).
When I openly admit to mistakes, it encourages the team at Rhone to take chances. They know it’s OK to take risks and occasionally fail because they see their leader do the same thing. I’ve seen this strengthen our team relationships and promote honest discussions and feedback.
Vulnerability is becoming a natural part of my leadership style, but it didn’t come easy. I’ve had to take deliberate steps toward honesty and transparency. Our leadership team meets at an offsite location annually to formulate our strategy for the upcoming year, so I kicked off the last meeting by reading aloud a letter I wrote detailing my personal goals for becoming a better CEO. I won’t lie: It was difficult to read my faults aloud, but it made me feel closer to my team and hold me accountable to achieve the goals I laid out. I also saw others on the team who felt more empowered to be open about their own weaknesses.
Remember that weaknesses mean you’re human. Imperfection is human. Many leaders — including myself — struggle with an inferiority complex or imposter syndrome. According to a recent study, about 70% of all people feel this way. But if I’ve learned one thing as I have met some of the most capable people in various fields, it is that nobody has all the answers. Don’t feel like you need to act a part. Be honest about what you know and, more importantly, what you don’t.
There’s no faster way to lose credibility (and, consequently, your ability to lead) than to pretend you know everything. Honestly admit that you don’t have the answer by saying, “Let me give that more thought” or asking in return, “What do you think is the right solution?”
Turn Vulnerability Into an Advantage
Vulnerability is, by definition, a risk or a physical or emotional exposure. Recently, my friend Matt Durham taught me that fighter pilots have another term for vulnerability. They call it “the dark middle.” In his words, “This is the point when a pilot has gone so far down their path they no longer turn back to their point of origin or they will run out of fuel. They pass that point of no return. There is no going back.”
Vulnerability is stepping into that unknown dark middle, and so a natural response may be to bottle everything up in order to protect the company and yourself. That was my first response, too. But after humanizing myself to my team members, I realized how important it is to be vulnerable, honest, and open-minded.
My hope is that once you feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable, you may find it just as well-received. Here are four other benefits you might experience:
- A positive company culture —Let’s face it: As Americans, we generally live to work. We spend a considerable amount of time working (sometimes more than we do eating, sleeping, or spending with family and friends). Because we spend so much time in the office, creating a positive work environment is beneficial to everyone.
Encourage openness and honesty but provide boundaries. You need somewhere you can relax, but the workplace (and vulnerability) isn’t for venting and seeking sympathy. Rather, a positive company culture with a foundation of vulnerability encourages growth, promotes employee engagement, and increases team collaboration.
- Increased self-awareness —Personal development is an important part of the human experience. In order to grow, we need to be aware of what we need to develop. This requires focus, intention, and a lot of work and self-reflection.
Practicing vulnerability helps you find the alignment of what you need to work on and how you’re progressing. This newly gained self-awareness shouldn’t be used to shield your shortcomings. Rather, use it to guide your leadership and decision-making.
- An innovative team —Most of us would love to be perfect, but we also recognize that’s not an attainable goal. When leaders pretend to be flawless, everyone else is less inclined to think outside the box. Why risk failing and being struck down? Mediocrity becomes the safest course.
Greatness is rarely found by avoiding risks. When a company celebrates vulnerability and openness, employees realize that every voice matters and that good ideas can come from anywhere. Reward the bold, and innovation will follow.
- Maximized team talent —Throughout my life, I’ve met few people who truly prefer isolation over a great team environment. What people actually prefer is isolation over a toxic team. And who can blame them? Most people are highly influenced by their environments.
When you invest in a team culture of vulnerability and openness, it becomes self-perpetuating. Hires that were disasters at other companies may thrive in a more open environment, and that culture will magnetically attract like-minded talent.
My own experiences have shown me the value of executive vulnerability. Research shows that being vulnerable requires courage, and courage is undoubtedly one of the most necessary traits for a leader. Try opening up to your co-workers and employees — the benefits await.
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