Leaders are not perfect. But we like to act like it. We try to hide our weakness and project perfection to those around us, thinking this will instill confidence in us and others. Actually, it’s the opposite. Vulnerability makes you a stronger leader. Here’s how.
While speaking to a small group of ministers in California a dangerous thing happened, an illustration I haven’t used before popped into my mind. I launched into the story. “My wife and I are seeing a marriage counselor, and the amazing thing I learned was…”
That’s as far as I got. It was like the air was suddenly sucked out of the room. A couple people looked shocked. One guy looked nervous. It took me a second to understand what caused their reactions. I just told the group 1) I have marriage problems, 2) it’s tough enough I’m seeing a counselor, and 3) it’s happening right now.
I looked at them and said, “What? We’re talking today about how to help people. We all need help! And besides, this is California, the therapy-capital of the world. You guys should be all over this!” They laughed, and I continued with the story.
That story turned out to be the learning highlight of the day for a few people. More than the point of the story, my vulnerability as a leader modeled to other participants that they can be open and honest too.
In case you’re wondering, I received permission from my wife to share this story. We’ve completed our counseling and are now happily applying the new understanding and skills we learned, wondering why we didn’t do this years ago.
The Paradox of Weakness
It’s one of life’s paradoxes that we become stronger leaders by being vulnerable about our weaknesses.
St. Paul (of the Bible) graduated from the Harvard of his day. He was top of the Jewish social pecking order. Yet, he had one glaring weakness he referred to as “a thorn in my flesh.” He prayed this “thorn” would be taken away. The answer he received is instructive, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Most leaders – yes, me too – want to project an invincible image of strength and competence. We act as if we are made perfect by our strength, not our weakness. We try to correct all our faults and fix all our weaknesses. And when we can’t, we hide them.
It’s precisely in hiding our faults and weaknesses what we become weaker, not stronger as leaders.
To hide weaknesses takes a lot of energy. We deflect conversations that could reveal them. We organize things in such a way as to cover our faults. Even if we don’t blatantly lie about our faults and weaknesses, we are not entirely honest about them either.
We’re fooling ourselves if we think the people around us don’t notice. They do. And they learn this is not a safe place to reveal their own faults and weaknesses.
As a result, we build a leadership culture of self-protection, façades, and manipulation to keep things hidden. And worse, people are left to try to develop themselves privately rather than through the encouragement, feedback, and community of others.
5 Ways Vulnerability Makes You A Stronger Leader
When we honestly acknowledge our faults and weaknesses we unlock leader development dynamics that strengthen not only you but the people around you. Here are 5 ways acknowledging weakness will help you grow as a leader.
- We stop hiding and covering up. As I’ve already mentioned, hiding leads to deflection, protection, and a lack of honesty. We live held in bondage by our inadequacies, rather than living with freeing humility.
- We work from our strengths. All that energy spent protecting and hiding our weaknesses can be shifted to focus on working from our strengths and the strengths of others.
- We empower others. We don’t have to prove we can do something we are weak at. Instead, we simply say, “You’re more skilled right now in this than I am, why don’t you take the lead on this part of the project.”
- We grow with the help of the community around us. Humans are social creatures. We grow and improve through interaction with other people. But that only happens if you are vulnerable and open to improving.
- We model grace, safety, and honesty. Teams that perform at the highest levels have a culture of improvement. We often miss the fact that the underlying characteristics of an improvement culture are grace, safety and honesty. If people feel judged or are penalized for communicating weakness, then they will hide it – and not improve.
It takes tact and timing to be vulnerable in ways that strengthen you and others. Obviously, there is some weakness that is best acknowledged within a trusted team setting, rather than announcing to your whole organization.
Being vulnerable really comes down to humbly acknowledging weakness, asking for help, and empowering others to use their strengths. Imagine if your whole team acted like this. Now you’re growing and performing!
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