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January 25, 2023

The Case for Vulnerability In Leadership

Post By:
Debra Wheatman
In-House Contributor
Careers Done Write
Guest Contributor:

There is no shortage of bad advice out there: in the media, on the internet, and among your acquaintances. This is why critical thinking and reading skills are so important—you need to be able to consume information, evaluate it, and determine whether it makes sense or not. 

Is the author/creator using logical fallacies? Are they making broad, sweeping statements with no data to back them up? Does their advice pass the “smell test”? 

So when I read this article in Inc., my critical-thinking Spidey sense began tingling. The author postulates that being vulnerable is a poor leadership quality; that it makes you look weak and can lead to your exploitation. He says that vulnerability can reduce your power, make you seem scared, and damage your credibility. Oh, and he hates “fake it until you make it.” Weak

The highlight of his missive is this gem: A general wouldn’t be telling their troops they have impostor syndrome as they lead them into battle. (Ah, war references and metaphors. Classic bro-speak.) 

This take on vulnerability in leadership completely missed the mark, and here’s why.

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I don’t know how many military people this author has spoken with, but in my line of work, I have talked with many as they transition from military service to civilian employment. When discussing leadership competencies, a retired army colonel spoke to me about the importance of having empathy and understanding, because “no one is going to volunteer to die for someone they hate.” That comment has stuck with me for many years.

Leading troops into combat situations is a high-stakes effort. Managing a corporate team does not come close to comparing. No one is going to die because we didn’t hit our numbers last quarter. So, if a military officer embraces the idea of leadership by showing vulnerability and empathy as a way to motivate performance and engender trust, it’s safe to say that this should be good practice for the rest of us.

Being vulnerable and empathetic does not mean you have to share your deepest, most personal secrets and let them all hang out. It means letting your guard down, putting pretenses aside, admitting mistakes, and being yourself. People can tell when you are being disingenuous. The stench of disingenuity and duplicity lingers in the atmosphere (again, with the smell test).

By being open and honest, vulnerable leaders are better able to engage with staff, which inevitably leads to increased productivity, improved morale, faster conflict resolution, and improved recruiting and retention outcomes.

Leaders who show vulnerability are strong and confident. They know that they don’t have all the answers. That’s why they build teams and entrust the team members to advise them on their particular areas of expertise. They don’t need to be the “smartest guy in the room” all the time (we all know these people, and they are insufferable). By inviting team members to drive conversations, vulnerable leaders inspire creativity and innovation and create cultures rooted in trust and accountability.

Contrary to what my guy says in his Inc. article, leadership is not about wielding power. It is about motivating people to exceed their own expectations.