Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Power of Expressing Vulnerability as a Leader

Guest post from Eduard Ezeanu:

Expressing vulnerability is an interesting experience; especially for a leader. When you express vulnerability, you expose your weaknesses as a person and as professional, making yourself more open to any potential external attack.

When I coach people in management and leadership positions, more often than not I discover that they dread expressing vulnerability because of this. They don't want to reveal the chinks in their armor in any way. Rather, they try to convey an image of perfection and impenetrability. They often think this is how a leader should be anyway.

The problem is that they're not perfect, and they don't have to be either. This common tendency in leaders to avoid expressing vulnerability comes from a flawed mindset and it works against them. So I'd like to address and correct this mindset here.

Nobody Is Out To Get You
The very foundation of the fear of expressing vulnerability is fragile: the idea (which is often subconscious) that in the work environment others are out to get you, so you should hide any weakness you have instead of letting it show.

This is a highly exaggerated idea. While it is true that competition and some degree of backstabbing are realities of the business world, for the most part people in the business world are well intentioned and they respect others. They seek to see the good in others, and they don't have a hidden agenda to sabotage anyone they can. I believe that leaders tend to be a bit paranoid in their perspective here, which is a tendency that great power can generate.

On top of this, it's key to realize that even if as a leader you manage to portray an image of perfection, other people don't really buy into it. Because they still know you're only human, and therefore imperfect. So they know you have your flaws; you're just doing a really good job at hiding them. Which, coincidentally, does a good job of making them distrust you.

This brings me to my next point. If expressing vulnerability doesn't have its presumed downsides, what does it do? I believe that it creates one major benefit.

Expressing Vulnerability Builds Massive Trust

In my view, expressing vulnerability is a very powerful leadership tool for building trust. Whenever you express vulnerability, you show that you're not afraid to be genuine and human, and you accept yourself as you are. This is a truly meaningful and rare message to convey as a leader, and it instantly makes others trust you more. Because they know you're not putting on an act and you're not about appearances.

In addition, people connect well with each other by getting to know and understand their vulnerabilities. Vulnerability is inclined to generate a sense of empathy and rapport more than just about anything else you could reveal. After all, we all have our own vulnerabilities and it's easy for us to see ourselves in the vulnerabilities of others. This is why it makes sense to take leadership conversation beyond strengths and formal talk, and expose vulnerabilities as well.

So not only that expressing vulnerability as a leader isn't a bad thing, it's actually a good thing. I see it as a leadership skill that every leader or potential leader needs to master.

How to Express Vulnerability

As a coach, I've helped many individuals in management and leadership positions learn how to express vulnerability in the workspace.

The first important thing to understand is that it's a gradual process. You gradually get out of your shell more and show your weak spots. You notice the effects, which will most likely be positive, and this encourages you to come out even more. Thus, step by step, you express more vulnerability and you become more comfortable with it.

How do you actually express vulnerability? By talking about your flaws, fears and failures. These are the things we usually try to hide, when in fact it's a good idea to expose them.

Talk about the mistakes you made and what you learned from them. This makes for great inspirational stories. When you realize you lack the competence to handle something, say so and ask for help. When something worries you, express your worry instead of keeping it to yourself. Others probably know you worry anyway, but they also want you to say it.

Last but not least, it's useful to understand that expressing vulnerability is contextual. You don't just start talking about your failures all of a sudden in a meeting. But if for instance, there is a discussion about a certain project where you believe you made a bad decision, say so instead of hiding this, blaming others or pretending you were right.

Expressing vulnerability may seem easy enough, but it's actually a complex skill, which you develop with practice and by becoming comfortable with your imperfections as a leader.

I often say that the only person who is asking of you to be perfect is yourself. So perhaps it's time to let go of your perfectionism and allows yourself to be a leader with a human face. The results will astonish you.

About the author:
Eduard Ezeanu coaches leaders to help them talk to others in a clear, confident and genuine manner, thus maximizing their impact in the organization. You can read more articles on building confidence and communication skills on his People Skills Decoded blog.

1 comment:

Renee Cormier said...

You make some very interesting points. I have always believed being human and natural around you employees is an important part of the employee engagement process.