The Board of Directors had just raked my boss over the coals for losing out on a project. And while he said he was “good,” I knew firsthand that he wasn’t.
This wasn’t the first time the board had been tough on him. He was failing, and he knew it. His team wanted to help—and we could have—but he refused to talk about his problems with us. I felt bad: He was always there for us, but he wouldn’t let us be there for him.
Later—at his going away party—he admitted he’d been too proud and afraid to ask for support. He tried to do it alone which he saw as his real mistake. Watching him taught me that being vulnerable when you’re the leader isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it’s very important, and it’s a trait all good leaders have.
It takes a lot of courage to share your imperfections and perceived weaknesses. Still, too many managers are stuck in the old belief that admitting they don’t know something means they’ll lose the respect and confidence of their team. (Maybe so, but you’ll lose it for sure if you never ask for support and blow it.)
Beyond that, being vulnerable is about more than getting comfortable admitting you need help from others; there are five ways it can make you a better leader.
1. You’ll Build Better Teams, Faster
Managers are role models. Surely, you don’t want your team to “fake it to make it” if that means failing—when it was totally avoidable.
When you’re vulnerable, you send a message that telling the truth is better than pretending. Teams that can be honest with one another have better results, because they’re not afraid to point out a problem or seek help when needed.
2. You’ll Have Less Conflict
Transparency leads to authentic two-way communication, which in turn reduces confusion. When you start a conversation by being upfront, it encourages the other person to do the same thing. When you’re vulnerable, it encourages the other person—including someone who’s upset with you—to do the same.
Let’s say an employee comes to you because he’s feeling neglected. He’s upset that you keep rescheduling meetings with him and haven’t been responsive over email, either. He feels like you aren’t providing the support he needs to do a good job. You’ll be tempted to be defensive, to deny any wrongdoing and simply say that you’ve been busy and other things took priority. After all, admitting you did something wrong, might make you look weak.
Actually, it’s quite the opposite. If you’re honest that you’ve had a tough time balancing all of your responsibilities and made a mistake by not being there for your team, you’re employee will be more confident in your leadership. Telling the truth and sharing your imperfections builds loyalty and trust. He’ll appreciate that you didn’t dismiss his concerns, and he’ll know that you genuinely want to avoid being an absentee manager.
3. You’ll Receive Useful Feedback
Instead of feeling the need to protect themselves from critical feedback, vulnerable leaders accept their imperfections as a normal part of being a person. As a result, criticism’s less daunting, and they’re able to receive it more openly and less defensively.
It’s common to think of feedback going from boss to employee, and many people find it intimidating to suggest improvements up to their managers. But your team often is composed of the very people who can pinpoint areas where changes would make a big difference.
By showing you’re comfortable hearing what they think—even when it’s critical—you’ll empower them to share observations from how you can avoid potential pitfalls to communicate with them more effectively.
4. You’ll Promote Healthy Risk-Taking and Accountability
People who work for vulnerable leaders are more able to manage uncertainty and risk, because they know it’s OK to try something new—even if the outcome is uncertain. Because they’re honest with themselves throughout the process, they’re willing to take ownership when things don’t turn out as they had hoped.
However, there’s a good chance there will be a positive outcome, since these people aren’t afraid to ask for help along the way. Their strong support networks will help them execute new ideas more successfully. (And again, even if they fail, they won’t be ashamed to own up to it—which can lead to learning valuable lessons.)
5. You’ll Improve the Overall Environment
As Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly, “In an organizational culture, where respect and the dignity of individuals are held as the highest values, shame and blame don’t work as management styles.”
This reduces what she calls “Cover-Up Cultures” where people hustle for approval to avoid being embarrassed or belittled. With a leader who admits their own shortcomings, people can bring their whole selves to work because they know that, no matter what, they won’t be made to feel small when they make mistakes.
Vulnerable leaders aren’t blind to the risks that come with being wholehearted and open. But they know that being defensive is risky, too. The difference is one behavior creates the potential for joy, success, and great relationships. And while defensive leaders may be able to achieve just as much success, when they get there, they’re usually all alone.
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