Why Be a Vulnerable Leader? Research, Benefits, Tips

why be a vulnerable leaderIn this article I explain why it’s more effective (and fulfilling) to be a vulnerable leader, based on research as well as my own experience.

Historically, leaders have often been portrayed as these tough, invulnerable beings – commanders who never waver, never doubt, never fear.

Sounds impressive, right?

But also… dare I say, robotic.

And we humans are not robots. No offense to robots. Robots are great at what they do, like assembling cars or amusing us with their dance routines on YouTube.

But they lack the rich tapestry of human emotions.

And emotions give us depth, understanding, authenticity – and each of these qualities enable us to operate as our highest potential selves.

And so it’s to our benefits to embrace these emotions – and show up – even in the office – as our vulnerable truest selves.

Thankfully nowadays many successful leaders are recognizing the value in embracing vulnerability.  These successful leaders are no longer afraid to say, “I don’t know,” or “Let’s figure this out together.” They understand that acknowledging one’s limitations isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s an invitation for collaboration and growth.

As someone who has worked as a Creative Director in NYC’s leading ad agencies, I know firsthand what works – and doesn’t work – with managing teams.

So in this article I’m going to explain why it’s highly effective (and more fulfilling) to be a vulnerable leader.

Research on The Benefits of Being a Vulnerable Leader

authenticity real talk karen salmansohnIn his illuminating book “Good to Great,” Jim Collins delves deep into this subject. He notes that leaders who embrace vulnerability, also wind up creating a safer space for their teams to be vulnerable too.

All of this openness leads to more candid discussions about problems, mistakes, and challenges. As a result, this vulnerability sets the stage for fixing problems instead of ignoring them – and taking braver chances instead of staying in a comfort zone that becomes a no-growth zone.

In line with this, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson’s studies on psychological safety highlight that teams in psychologically safe environments are more apt to identify and rectify mistakes earlier, fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

Furthermore, the respected researcher, Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, encourages being a vulnerable leader. Brown’s research supports the idea that vulnerability is not a weakness, but rather a source of strength and innovation. When you lead by showing your vulnerability you encourage others to bravely share risky ideas, express their outside of the box perspectives, and get out of their comfort zones to seek greater growth.

In addition to the above, consistently studies report that people relate more to someone who authentically admits that they’ve faced challenges and bounced back… compared to someone who pretends they’ve never faced a setback. And so these people enjoy more fulfilling and rewarding relationships with others to boot.

With all this in mind, leaders who are vulnerable thereby become a terrific asset to a business.

5 Tips for Being a More Effective, Vulnerable Leader

Tip 1: Practice Transparency

make a mistakeWhat It Means: Practicing transparency as a leader involves openly sharing information, decisions, and company insights with your team. It’s about being honest and straightforward, removing the barriers of hierarchy and closed-door policies. Transparency builds trust and creates a mutually respectful and inclusive workplace environment.

Research: Studies consistently demonstrate the positive impact of transparency in leadership on employee trust and satisfaction.

Example: Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, has long practiced transparency, openly sharing his thoughts and feelings about the company and its direction. This openness has fostered a strong sense of trust and loyalty among Starbucks employees.

Tip 2: Foster Psychological Safety

What It Means: Fostering psychological safety means creating an environment where employees feel secure and comfortable expressing themselves without fear of retribution. It’s about ensuring everyone feels valued and heard, promoting open communication, and welcoming diverse perspectives and ideas.

Research: Amy Edmondson’s work highlights that teams in psychologically safe environments more swiftly identify and correct mistakes, enhancing overall performance and innovation.

Example: Google’s Project Aristotle found that teams with high levels of psychological safety were among the most successful, underscored by a culture where everyone felt safe to take risks and express their thoughts and ideas.

Tip 3: Show Empathy

What It Means: Showing empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of others. It’s about putting yourself in others’ shoes, showing compassion, and offering support. Empathetic leadership leads to stronger connections, enhanced communication, and improved team collaboration.

Research: A study by Businessolver found that 93% of employees are more likely to stay with an empathetic employer.

Example: Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has been a strong advocate for empathy in leadership. Under his leadership, Microsoft’s culture has shifted towards more collaboration, creativity, and empathy, contributing to the company’s significant growth.

Tip 4: Admit Mistakes and Learn from Them

apology without any effort to change is just manipulationWhat It Means: Admitting mistakes and learning from them means taking ownership of your errors and using them as opportunities for growth and improvement. It demonstrates humility, accountability, and a commitment to learning, all of which enhance your credibility and approachability as a leader.

Research: According to Harvard Business Review, leaders who admit their mistakes are seen as more human, relatable, and approachable.

Example: After the tragic accidents involving its 737 MAX, Boeing’s CEO, David Calhoun, publicly admitted to the company’s mistakes and outlined the steps they were taking to correct them. This admission, though painful, was a crucial step toward rebuilding trust and credibility.

Tip 5: Encourage and Welcome Feedback

What It Means: Encouraging and welcoming feedback means actively seeking and valuing input from your team regarding your performance, policies, and procedures. It reflects a dedication to continuous improvement and demonstrates that you value and respect your team’s insights and perspectives.

Research: According to PwC, nearly 60% of employees said they would like feedback on a daily or weekly basis.

Example: Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, often asks for feedback about his performance from his employees. This approach not only helps him improve but also demonstrates a commitment to personal and organizational growth.

Recap: Vulnerable Leaders Are More Effective Leaders

Being a vulnerable leader doesn’t mean you wear your heart on your sleeve at all times. It means you are authentically human, transparent, and committed to growth — both your own and your organization’s.

By adopting these five tips into your leadership style, you will foster a more inclusive, open, and high-performing organizational culture.

So, you’ve made it to the end of the article. Happy to see you here! If you’re ready to move past reading words on a screen and into some real change, let’s chat. I’m a bestselling author and lead behavioral change expert with 2 million books and online courses sold. Book an exploratory call and let’s see how I can help you become your highest potential at work – and beyond.

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