In the last article, we introduced our leadership framework “4 Pillars of Authentic Leadership”. In there, we argue that there is a connection between vulnerability, empathy, integrity and adaptability (the 4 Pillars) and authentic leadership for trustful working environments.
What is Vulnerability
“Vulnerability” has two components:
The willingness to be exposed and transparent (Ito & Bligh, 2016)
This component becomes visible within a traditional understanding of relationships. It was often not ok for the male part to show any sign of emotion (e.g. crying) as they would otherwise appear weak. But being ok to cry in front of the wife or even in public without feeling ashamed, signals high vulnerability.
In leadership relationships, a manager might be afraid to appear weak when admitting a mistake. High vulnerability would signal to be ok with this feeling.
The acceptance of potentially being hurt or attacked from situations or individuals (Brown, 2012)
The second component describes rather the reaction of how we respond to situations or individuals hurting or attacking us. For example, how do we respond to the feeling of jealousy, if we see the person we are attracted to with someone else. Jealousy is a complex emotion. However, a high understanding of vulnerability might help us to deal with some part of the jealous emotion. Then we might not overreact, or we might have a higher confidence in ourselves.
In leadership, there are constantly interactions between leaders and followers, among followers or also among leaders. In complex adaptive systems, formally authorized leaders do not have the capability to control all interactions between all the parts of the system. There might be situations, in which individuals complain about the leader in secret chat groups, at the water cooler, in lunch conversations, etc. The second component of vulnerability describes, that we are OK with these situations and won’t react defensively or authoritatively.
The fundamentals of vulnerability
Vulnerability is based on three qualities. For making vulnerability visible and effective, we would need to have all three of those qualities:
- Self-awareness describes our understanding of our own actions, thoughts or emotions. The more we understand, the higher the chance for vulnerability. This also becomes important for empathy in our next article.
- Humility describes a low understanding of our own importance. If we believe that our role is the most important to our team’s success, then there is no humility. This may make it difficult for us to be open and transparent to admit mistakes if they happen.
- Courage describes to do something, which might be out of our comfort zone. Openly communicating and admitting a mistake needs some courage, if we are afraid to look weak.
How Vulnerability helps in Leadership
Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness. Traditional leaders often have the understanding, that they need to appear strong and confident. But if we understand the world today as a complex adaptive system, then it is often impossible to be strong and confident. Remember, it is impossible to control and understand every interaction or dynamic within in a team. And then vulnerability can be used as a strength.
There is a direct connection between vulnerable leaders and a trustful environment:
Decrease fear of risk-taking
The expression of vulnerability is a key element in creating trust and safety for team members. By displaying vulnerability, leaders show that making mistakes is acceptable. This decreases the fear of risk-taking. This could be visible in higher proactive self-organization in a team. Team members might not need to wait for the manager’s approval to try something new. Even if they are making a mistake, they know, it would be accepted by the authority.
But additionally, taking risks and trying new approaches increases the chance of creativity and innovation. Showing vulnerability signals that leaders want and appreciate the input from followers. This results in members feeling safe to speak up and propose new ideas.
Increase of psychologically safe environments
Being open, accessible and available are the core components of inclusive leadership. If the team leader signals the virtue of being open, team members are more likely to show similar behaviors. They are more likely to openly admit to mistakes, thus showing vulnerability and hence contributing to a climate of psychological safety.
How to become more vulnerable?
Often Vulnerability is seen as a passive state, we are in. But as we learned from the definitions and the fundamentals above, there are certain qualities we build upon to increase our own vulnerability, thus making us a more authentic leader for higher performance.
Building vulnerability is introspective. This means we can build it ourselves. As mentioned in our earlier article, followers don’t just do, what we say. They rather mimic our actions. Therefore, we should not just tell people to be more vulnerable, but rather act vulnerable.
Reflect in cycles
To increase your vulnerability, we suggest deciding on an introspective cycle or rhythm (similar to iterations in Agile). During this cycle, you can analyze your own progress towards Vulnerability and decide on some actions.
If we want to change the way we work, we need to change the way we look at work. The following questions might give you some insights on how you might want to look differently at your work.
- What were the best and the worst feedback you received from your stakeholders in the last cycle/rhythm/iteration?
- And what were the best and the worst feedback you gave to your stakeholders in the last cycle/rhythm/iteration?
- What are your top 3 obstacles on your journey to become more vulnerable?
- When would you communicate those obstacles to the persons you trust the most / the least?
- How would you describe your fear or doubts about your team / product / service to the different members of your stakeholders?
- Would you describe that differently from the people, who you trust the least to the ones, you trust the most? Why or Why not?
Do you want to know more on how vulnerability helps you in your leadership? Do you want to test those questions with real-live scenarios? Then come to one of our 4 Pillar workshops.