Business TransformationChief Executive Insights

Do You Have To Be Vulnerable To Excel At Leadership?

Leaders who are still caught up in the old command-and-control, top-dog leadership style are asking for trouble. In addition to the stress and burnout that it causes, it can be embarrassing.

Today’s business world is more fast-paced. There’s constant change whether it’s with talent, strategy or market share. And to keep stride, leaders must constantly monitor their own performance wellbeing to be more effective in serving the needs of the organization.

In reality we’d rather hide behind a title while lacking the influence to keep people energized and passionate for the long haul.

The world today is asking for a new kind of leader −− a leadership model that doesn’t play it safe or shy away from uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure. In other words, the world needs leaders who authentically embrace vulnerability.

Brené Brown, the popular lecturer and research professor at the University of Houston who has been studying vulnerability, courage, empathy, and shame for well over a decade has this to say about playing it safe:

“If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”

People often seek remedy and solace in prescription drugs for symptoms such as these ignoring the need to simply adjust the behavior.

You Aren’t Super Human

The problem is leaders have been told to hang tough, never to show emotions. And if others are to look up to you, you must put your best foot forward and be the smartest person in the room. How many times have you heard that by asking for support is a show of weakness? If you want to compete and survive in today’s marketplace, these deep seated patterns will work against you.  Jumping through these kinds of loops adversely affect performance and how you’re perceived as a role model.

Sure, incubating a sense of safety is easy. Pursue leadership under a false identity; embrace the need to be liked; refuse to open yourself up to your team and colleagues about your concerns or fears, about your personal life apart from work, and about your genuine desires and distresses, and you have the ingredients of an inauthentic leader with no clarity in purpose or sense of direction.

Today vulnerability is an essential strategy to excel at leadership. Leaders ought to unashamedly look into their own dynamics to see personal areas needing work. We need a different type of leader if we are to build a better type of organization.

As Brené points out, vulnerability and leadership go hand in hand. Here are three views of what that look like.

  1. Personally aware.  How well do you know yourself? Personal awareness is the foundation that supports everything a leader does. Personal awareness conditions you to look inward, to be honest with yourself, to recognize unhelpful habits and behaviors and to reflect on what drives your decisions, thoughts and actions so you can have courage to break through self-limiting challenges and move on. It also allows you to see things from the perspective of others, practice self-control, work creatively and productively, and experience pride in self, your work as well as general self-esteem (Silvia & O’Brien, 2004).
  2. Personally relatable. How well do your team and colleagues know you? As openly as you share your strengths and successes, be willing to show your flops and failures. This makes you approachable and inspires others to explore solutions creatively. People need leaders who can talk about feelings and have really hard conversations around things like race, sexual assault, suicide. Live an authentic life with the people you lead sharing your ideals and values. Living in line with your values and openly representing them is associated with increased positive affect and satisfaction with life. (Ciarrochi & Heaven, 2015).
  3. Personally flawed. Give yourself permission to be human. Everyone has flaws. If your goal is showing your best side at all times, you will place a huge drain on your energy and waste a lot of time. Not to mention the negative emotional and psychological consequences of leading an overly-stressed life in trying to cover up your true identity. You and your leadership are not inseparable then accept your flaws as your differentiator and recognize they are part of your personality. Let others see the real you as a way to open an avenue to honesty and trust. (Klassen & Chiu, 2010).

Leaders who exhibit a high degree of vulnerability and humility present opportunities for the workforce and organization to do the same.

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Deana Murphy, Ph.D.
Deana Murphy is author of The Lead2Flourish Effect (2021), a leadership performance strategist, applied psychology practitioner and a CEO-executive coach specializing in executive performance wellbeing. Deana Murphy is founder of DecisionLab Global and an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.