Should a leader show any vulnerability?

October 4th, 2011

Vulnerability; a strength or a weakness?

Some time ago I attended a Leadership Management Wales seminar on Leadership Communication. One of the speakers  was a very successful business leader with what could only be described as a very individual style in both approach and appearance; his look was very reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow. This was part of the point; namely that leaders should not be afraid to be themselves or on occasion display vulnerability. I am not sure that I had heard anyone express this view before but it did immediately resonate with me.

The more I thought about it the more I realised that I myself responded better to others who were prepared to accept that they did not know all the answers, or could be wrong and who displayed a human element. It would certainly not appear to me to be a sign of weakness; more a sign of strength and real confidence in being willing and able to  accept genuine feedback. It also shows a willingness to be inclusive rather than presenting a “know it all” front. Far too often people in leadership positions seem to feel that they have to be guarded, suppress all emotions and consider that their decisions and authority should not be questioned. This only leads to others being similarly guarded, a lack of candid feedback and disengagement.

Carol Kinsey Goman Ph.D put it well when describing vulnerability as one of the cores of leadership. “Moving from a model in which leadership made all the decisions and knew all the answers to an organizational environment of openness, candor, and empowerment  takes a willingness by leaders to become and remain highly vulnerable.”

I was reminded of this recently, on talking to my sister in Australia.  My sister works in a highly competitive and stressful corporate environment where individuals are immediately penalised for any drop in performance and no allowances are given. She mentioned her boss who she described as being really hard and somewhat scary and certainly not someone who would be questioned. Her boss had recently moved from Sydney to Melbourne and at a chance social event it became clear that her husband had decided not to move with her and that they were in the process of splitting up. This put her behaviour into a completely different context, excusing rather than explaining it. It is of course understandable that some individuals will not want to share personal information with all and sundry but it is a shame that she had not felt able to share this with anyone previously as the outcome is a far more supportive team.  Having come across this organisation in an employment tribunal in the past, I can’t  help feeling that her reluctance to do so has a lot to do with the corporate culture;  I also wonder whether this might explain why they are not the market leaders that they once were.

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The report was very professional, it dealt with all the issues raised and was particularly thorough. It clearly took the time to fully understand all of the issues and background. It was complex but the report really helped to break it down and I’m hoping we can progress in a positive manner following the recommendations.

Group HR Manager, Energy Sector |

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