Leadership Essentials: Vulnerability

man holding sign that says do not wait for leaders become them

Craig Groeschel ends each podcast charging leaders to: “Be yourself. People would rather follow a leader who is always real rather than a leader who is always right.” Authenticity is vital to leadership and the only way to be fully real with others is to be vulnerable.

I make this assertion because vulnerability is the quality or state of being exposed. From a leadership perspective, vulnerability is the force that exposes a leader’s true self to their followers. Because vulnerability does expose leaders to their followers, some argue that leaders should not be vulnerable, but, this is only true from a top-down authoritarian perspective of management. Leadership, conversely, is always about influence, and it takes trust to build influence. Thus, to come full circle, people tend to follow people that are always real rather than people that are always right. To be someone worth following, we have to be comfortable being exposed.

What does this look like? While there are probably many examples, and even entire books written on vulnerable leadership —Brene Brown’s 20 minute TED talk is a good starting point — I want to share a simple example from my own leadership that anyone reading this blog can do. I make this assertion because you do not need to read a book, take a course, or listen to another podcast about vulnerability. More learning is not required, but courage is. Having the courage to be vulnerable is always about being uncomfortable because it exposes one’s self.

My story begins with a meeting that I was leading with our Plant Managers. I spent the majority of the meeting casting a vision about the rest of 2020 and fielding questions about our strategy. I always encourage the Plant Managers to voice their opinions and we have collectively created an environment where we all —the Plant Managers, our Directors in attendance, and myself — can be real. This particular meeting was much of the same, but I felt compelled at the end to say something extra. Admittedly, this feeling came from a podcast I had listened to that morning about how the worst jobs are those where people feel under-appreciated. So, I felt compelled to point out what I appreciated about the people in the room.

I started by telling the team that what I was about to do might feel weird for them and me. I don’t know if that is how a book on vulnerability would tell me to start, but it felt right to me, and remember, the trick is to be yourself. I then went around the room pointing out things I appreciated. For example:

  • I told one Plant Manager that I saw him working hard in another Plant two Fridays ago. He was sweating, helping, and was all-in. I voiced my appreciation for that extra effort and dedication.
  • I told another individual that every time I walk by his office on Friday mornings, I can see him coaching his Foreman. It leaves me with encouragement because I see the future developing in front of my eyes. I told him how much I appreciate his willingness to coach.
  • I told one of our most seasoned team-members that I appreciate his help in ALL matters. I also told him that I appreciate that he has the guts to tell me things other people would not tell me. (The room laughed because we all knew it was true).
  • And on and on I went through the entire room….

While this may indicate that I am an extremely vulnerable leader, the truth about me is that I often “chicken out.” I fail to say something to a sibling or co-worker because I lack the courage to have a conversation in the moment. There are sometimes things I feel prompted to say, but it feels a little too “emotional” for the workplace and I don’t say it. Or worse, I have a compliment to pay Sarah and I let the time go because the moment just did not feel “right,” in my own head ……. whatever that means. A little courage could go a long way and would dispel all of the above.

Yet, as the story also points out, I CAN be vulnerable when I choose courage.

My challenge is for you to choose courage as well. Aim to be someone that is real and vulnerable. You will become the kind of person others willingly follow and much to your own surprise, one of the most effective Leaders!