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When was the last time you embarrassed yourself or made a mistake?

Did you admit your mistake, or did you walk away feeling ashamed—and wondering if you might lose respect?

It’s all about how you handle it. Admitting your mistakes is a key part of being vulnerable—and vulnerability is key to being a strong leader.

It’s counter to what many of us were taught, and to the sentiment corporate culture can foster—that leaders are supposed to be perfect and without emotion. But in actuality, the strongest leaders are the most vulnerable.

So what IS vulnerability? People often have misconceptions. 

Vulnerability does not equal weakness.

Brene Brown, a leading researcher and expert on vulnerability, defines it as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

So what does uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure look like in the workplace?

Accepting that you don’t always know the answer

As a leader, you may not know the answer immediately. But you have the confidence to acknowledge it, assess the situation, put the right people in place, and develop plans for yourself and your team.

Admitting failures and mistakes

When you’ve made a mistake or there is failure, are you able to admit it, ask the right questions, take those learnings and incorporate them into the next endeavor? The strongest leaders not only understand their successes but also their failures. Admitting failure sets an example for your team, making it clear that egos are left at the door and the focus is on moving forward, gaining knowledge, and continual improvement.

Sharing your “how” and “why”

People are inspired when they hear about your journey, how and why you do what you do, and how you got there. Was it a conventional path to your current role, or would you describe it more as an adventurous road trip, with some scary moments and unexpected detours, leaving you with valuable insights and memories?  It is equally as important to share your North Star: whatever it is that motivates you to do what you do every day.

Embracing and even sharing your areas of challenge

I witnessed a great example of this recently.

I was running a workshop with highly accomplished women leaders from some of the largest companies in the world. Also in the room were men and women senior executive leaders, who were serving as mentors.

At the beginning of the workshop, each of the mentors stood and introduced themselves to the room. When it was his turn, one of the male mentors shared that standing up in front of the room and speaking in public was very difficult for him. I could see looks of surprise on a number of the participant’s faces. This is someone with great success, who has been in C-suite roles for over ten years and is frequently speaking in public settings.

After the workshop, a number of the participants came up to me and commented that when this mentor shared his fear and vulnerability they really admired, respected, and felt a human connection to him. It did not lessen his credibility as a leader; it actually had quite the opposite effect. His openness made people even more interested in what he had to say.

Strong leadership means admitting things that you are not good at.

Things like, “I don’t connect easily with people,” “I struggle with emotion,” “It’s a challenge for me to think big picture – I am very tactically driven.” Or, “I can initially come off as too informal and relaxed; I really have to focus on assessing my audience and communicate accordingly.”

These are all real examples shared by both women and men executives at a recent leadership panel. They were asked to share some of their insecurities and vulnerabilities.

Fact is, everyone has insecurities—things that are difficult for them, things they struggle with, things they’ve had to overcome, and areas where they need to ask for help.

Vulnerability = authenticity

The question becomes whether you show up as an “armored leader” or a “present leader,” as Brown defines them.

Brown says the things we want more of at work—trust, engagement, accountability, adaptability to change, innovation and creativity— all are born of vulnerability.

Vulnerability makes you authentic, and people are drawn to authenticity.

As a leader, when you give of yourself in an authentic way, you encourage others to grow and develop and you build a culture of trust.

There is nothing weak about that.


P.S. What does vulnerability look like for you? I’d love love to hear from you in the comments section below.


*image courtesy of Dan Brickley

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