Beauty In Imperfection: Vulnerability for a Purpose

Warwick Fairfax

October 19, 2020

We hear in our culture that we need to be authentic, even vulnerable.  But what does that mean, and can you be authentic and vulnerable, even after being broken, and still be successful?

For leaders, we feel vulnerability is a sign of weakness.  We fear our team will see our insecurities and respect us less. But the reverse is true.  The next generation of leaders on our team, certainly millennial leaders, want to follow authentic and vulnerable leaders.  But how do we do this? In particular, how do we practice vulnerability in a way that helps our team and does not sabotage our organization’s success or our personal success?

Here are some keys to vulnerability as a leader.  The overarching principle is we need to be vulnerable for a purpose.

Put Away Fear

Yes it is possible by being vulnerable we will say something that our team and those around us will feel is a bit weird or our leadership image armor might seem a bit tarnished.  But this will be more than counterbalanced by our team’s gratitude about our being real.  Our team will see that we have the courage to admit that we can be fearful and uncertain too.

Vulnerability for a Purpose

Being vulnerable might make us think that we have to share every dumb thing we’ve ever done.  Maybe we crashed our dad’s car in high school, or worse, we might have been drinking while driving.  Perhaps our marriage broke up, and we feel it was pretty much our fault.  Or we made some terrible business or career decision.  Maybe we were not the boss we believe we should have been.  There are many areas of fear, doubt and mistakes we can share.  So how do we decide what if anything to share?

Great leaders know that our team learns more through parables and stories than lectures.  Think about the great teachers.  We can think of Greek mythology and Greek heroes and the tales of heroism and folly.  Think of how Jesus taught mostly in parables and stories.  In wisdom literature, as well stories in general such as Aesop’s Fables, there was typically a point.  Often a great story has one key point the author wants to make.  So think of what you are trying to teach or relate to your team.  What story can you tell that will really reinforce your message?

Perhaps it is about taking risk.  Perhaps you could share a story of when you took a risk as the head of a small business unit, early in your career.  It might have failed, producing one lesson.  You might say, “I failed, but you have to be willing to fail in order to succeed.” You might share how the first few days as head of that business unit, you were so scared.  Afraid that if you blew this golden opportunity that your career would be history.  Perhaps it could be about failure when you were younger.  Perhaps you did not make your high school basketball team when your buddies did.  Maybe you kept trying and made the team the next year.  Or perhaps you did not want to fail again, so you never tried out for the team the rest of high school.  You could say, “In hindsight my fear of failure kept me back.”  And then you could tell your team, “I try never to be so afraid, that I make the mistake of not trying again.”

The key thought is, what point are you trying to make and which story would best illustrate your point?  In a sense, which fable, which morality tale – though in this case, they are true stories – will best fit the purpose of your story?

Vulnerability gives others the freedom to be vulnerable, too

By being vulnerable, by willing to admit that you have made mistakes and have been fearful, you give others and in particular your team the freedom to also be vulnerable.  If you are the leader of an organization, this willingness to be vulnerable can have a ripple effect through the company.  Your senior leaders may follow your lead and be vulnerable with their teams.  You as the leader set the tone, which can be to set a vulnerable empathetic tone or one of the fake strong armor, masking a fearful and insecure inside.

Vulnerability gives others the freedom to take risks

If you admit that you have made mistakes and that mistakes are OK, you give your team the freedom to take risks and try bold new adventures.  Yes, there has to be a vetting process for new ventures, but if you encourage a culture of vulnerability and risk taking, then more good ideas will come to the fore, some of which could be game changers for the organization.

Vulnerability can create connection

By being vulnerable, not only will your team learn that you have made mistakes too, but in doing so you will create a sense of connection.  They are more likely to share their own mistakes and fears, which creates the opportunity for you to listen, console and advise.  Because you are coming from the space of leading alongside them, not above them.  You are saying that you too made mistakes and have been fearful.  The question is not whether you have made mistakes and have been fearful.  The question is what you are going to do moving forward.  Are you going to learn the lessons of your mistakes?  How will you overcome your fears?  Just admitting your fears can be helpful in overcoming them.

Vulnerability can be a tremendous leadership tool.  Take the leap of faith.  Be willing for your team to see who you are warts and all, mistakes and fears and all.  You have to be pretty secure to be vulnerable and talk about your mistakes and fears.  You just might find by being vulnerable, your team will respect you more, be more willing to follow you, and you and your team might be more successful.  Being vulnerable for a purpose could be the key to your success and your team’s success.

Reflection

  • How could being vulnerable help your leadership with your team?
  • What are the chances that by being vulnerable, that your team will respect you more and be more willing to follow you?
  • Which story could you share that would most help your team?

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