Historically, managers in the corporate world have need to be strong, stoic figures who remain emotionless in the face of external threat and stress. The dial has moved very far away from this perception of leadership – particularly in the past few years. And with the rise of mental health in public consciousness, this shift towards vulnerability is becoming even more prominent.
Jeevan continues: “I think managers have typically been reluctant to be vulnerable because as a society we have valued easy, definitive answers to problems. But now such easy problems don’t exist - take issues around climate change or inequality for example. Or even areas like keeping everything motivated and fulfilled at work within an organisation.”
In this sense, leaders are less willing to share that they don’t have all the answers because the problems they’re trying to solve don’t have an easily identifiable answer or solution.
Historically, managers in the corporate world have need to be strong, stoic figures who remain emotionless in the face of external threat and stress. The dial has moved very far away from this perception of leadership – particularly in the past few years
Neal says that the reluctance of many managers to be vulnerable comes from an inability to shift their own perception of themselves. She said: “Vulnerability can be difficult for many managers because it requires a shift in their self-perception. Many people are promoted to leadership roles because they are smart and can solve problems. They’ve found success as being the go-to person who can help other people find solutions. So, when they don’t have all the answers, they start to question the value they bring to their role and fear that others will lose faith in them.
“Managers’ fears about showing vulnerability may also be reinforced by their organisation’s culture - 43% of frontline managers say that vulnerability is perceived as a leadership strength, not a weakness, in their organisation. As a result, the majority of leaders fear that vulnerability may be used as an excuse to pass them over for a promotion, deny a raise, or even cause for termination.”
It might be difficult to know where to begin in introducing an element of vulnerability into your leadership style. But to begin, rethinking your perception of what good leadership is might be a good place to start.
“Leaders need to signal that they see leadership as nurturing the potential of their teams to find the answers for themselves,” Jeevan says. “To do this they need to nurture the pillars of authenticity - helping each team member be the best version of themselves; connection - helping each team member stay deeply connected to their work and the problem they are ultimately contributing to in their work; and excellence - helping each member hold themselves to the highest standards.”
Importantly, it’s good for leaders exercising this new-found vulnerability to realise that being more honest about knowledge gaps doesn’t mean being less sure of yourself, headstrong, or confident – it's a whole other quality that adds to and compliments your existing leadership qualities.
Neal said: “Let's clarify what vulnerability is not: It's not a lack of confidence, a pessimistic attitude or excessive self-deprecation. Instead, vulnerability involves acknowledging uncertainty or admitting unfamiliarity with a subject, but then expressing confidence in finding solutions collectively or creating an opportunity to learn together. It could also include recognising others' expertise and expressing a desire to tap into that knowledge. Sharing personal experiences, like navigating past mistakes in a previous role, can further illustrate vulnerability.”
Being vulnerable might be seen as a negative thing depending on who you speak to. In a leadership context, embodying characteristics of vulnerability can have tremendous positive consequences on the engagement of your team and your overall leadership style. However, leaders must first recognise any biases they have against being vulnerable, and employers must create a culture whereby leaders feel they can embody these characteristics confidently. These things combined leads to a more open and honest way of leading a team.
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