I have been playing with the idea of “vulnerability” and what it means from a leadership perspective. What does it mean to be vulnerable and what are the boundaries we impose and the stories we tell about vulnerability? How does vulnerability show up at work and in our personal life?
In leadership circles the first level of this conversation is about transparency. Usually that’s associated with accessibility and openness about what’s going on in the organization. While that’s a huge step in the right direction, it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of a leader’s power. For me, vulnerability means opening up more, having deeper conversations and sharing what I see and feel. I have been exploring this more
with my coachees – executives, new managers and their teams. This is what I found when I started to be more open and vulnerable:
1. Being vulnerable differentiates good leaders from great leaders.
I am working with an executive – I’ll call her Jane – who is struggling with a relationship with her peer “Dave.” Dave is in a different geographical location and communicates almost exclusively via email. His emails and exchanges come across as sarcastic and challenging to the team. As a result, Jane and her team do not want to interact with Dave and do not know how to bring it up to him.
After some coaching, Jane reached out to Dave and had a conversation over the phone. She shared how she was feeling (I-statements) and described Dave’s behavior and the impact it was having on her and the team. She asked questions to
better understand what was driving Dave’s behavior and listened. By opening up and sharing her vulnerability, Dave opened up as well. From that call, they had a better awareness and appreciation of what they each needed to be successful and were now able to design new more effective ways of communicating and interacting with each other. By being vulnerable, Jane demonstrated great leadership. And in so doing, she created the opportunity for Dave to step into his leadership as well.
- Awareness of your self-talk and the stories you tell yourself moves vulnerability from constricting your leadership to enhancing it.
If we don’t share our vulnerability it controls us. You can see this in people who strive for perfection, want to control the situation or look cool. I experienced this with one of my clients, a seasoned
finance executive. He wanted to be seen as in control and getting perfect numbers. He would not ask for help and as result was suffering from burnout. What he was not seeing was that in not asking for help and in his seeking perfection, he was putting himself and his team at risk. He was putting up armor and engaging in behavior that was shutting down conversation and possibilities. What are the behaviors you engage in when you are feeling uncertain or exposed? What is your armor? What does or doesn’t happen because of it?
- The more we share, the more real and authentic the conversation, and the more trust we create.
When we share appropriately of ourselves, we create the space for others to share as well. Being vulnerable means we let people see us as humans. From that place deeper connections and conversations take place. We achieve deeper levels of truth-telling and learn about what’s most important to each other. This is significant because while consensus with people can be elusive, alignment around our values is not. And that creates new possibilities.
In one of my coaching calls with Jane, I decided to open up and share a story with her that related to what we were discussing. In sharing my personal story the floodgates opened and I learned more about Jane than I had in the previous 3 months of coaching. Jane shared with me that I had earned her trust and in that moment she felt able to go deeper and see what was there. What stories do you tell yourself that keep you from sharing and being more open? How can you challenge them?
- Vulnerability creates the space for new possibilities and bigger results.
I am working with a cross functional team of high potential leaders. Part of the coaching program is to deliver results on a specific project. The bigger objective is for them to develop leadership skills individually and collectively. On a recent call, I asked each of them to share their theme for 2013 and
to explain what was important about it for them as leaders. As each person shared, the conversation deepened. Then we explored the project and goals and aligned on results. The results they set for themselves were bigger than they had initially created. All team members shared that creating a space for each of them to show up in their own way enabled them to leverage each other’s strengths and create possibilities and results bigger than initially expected.
5. Vulnerability honors and taps into the power of your inner leader, supporting you in creating your desired future.
The actions we take invariably align with what we expect or see as possible. Oftentimes we are getting in our own way without realizing it. Being vulnerable enough to reveal the assumptions we are operating with will usually expand the range of possibilities before us.
Jane and I talked about the assumptions and beliefs she had that were holding her back from what she wanted. We looked at how that was playing out as a leader of her team and as a member of the senior leadership group. It took courage and vulnerability to explore this and to see how it was impacting her authentic leadership. We now have a meaningful action plan to work with and Jane is noticing and letting go of those assumptions that were holding her back.
Being vulnerable is not about being weak. If anything, being vulnerable requires tremendous courage. It gains you the trust and respect of those you’re in conversation with. Think of a recent interaction that did not go as expected. Where did your lack of vulnerability contribute to that outcome? Often vulnerability, and the opportunities it creates, begins by simply admitting “I don’t know.” Start taking some half-steps towards being more vulnerable and notice the impact. Then please share what you’re learning about being more vulnerable.