The overlooked attribute making good leaders great

In management L&D, a few characteristics come to mind when we think about what makes a brilliant leader. Yet, this quality is often overlooked.
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HR Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd
The overlooked attribute making good leaders great
What makes a brilliant leader?

A manager with confidence, good conflict resolution, and great organisational skills would be considered a great leader in any organisation. However, one quality that often goes unnoticed, but is primary to a leader’s ability to manage effectively, is the skill of being vulnerable.

The concept of vulnerability in leadership refers to a leader's willingness to be open, authentic, and transparent about their own limitations, uncertainties, and emotions. While traditionally, leaders were often expected to project strength, confidence, and authority, there is a growing recognition that vulnerability can be an important and positive trait in effective leadership.

This is because vulnerability in a leader builds trust in an organisation. If a manager is honest about them not having all the answers, this also allows space for other team members to step in, empowering staff as a collective.

Why is vulnerability such an important skill in a leader or manager?

Leaders who are open about their vulnerabilities create an environment where team members feel safe to express their thoughts and concerns. This openness not only strengthens relationships but also demonstrates emotional intelligence, enhancing the leader's ability to navigate complex dynamics. No one can know everything all the time, not even company leaders. Ultimately, being vulnerable is embedded in being honest about this inability to know everything.

Sharath Jeevan OBE, the Founder & Executive Chairman of Intrinsic Labs, says: “In today’s world leaders need to move away from thinking they need to have all the answers to having a unique perspective on a “wicked” problem - a problem with no easy or single technical solution. And then guiding and trusting their teams and stakeholders to find the right answers to realise that perspective. It’s a subtle but a critical one to get right.”

In today’s world leaders need to move away from thinking they need to have all the answers...

Sharath Jeevan OBE, the Founder & Executive Chairman of Intrinsic Labs

This vulnerability acts as a tacit form of delegation to other team members, where others are invited to help solve the issue at hand. Stephanie Neal, Director at DDI’s Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Interviewing, said: “Demonstrating vulnerability allows leaders to involve others in the quest for solutions, fostering a setting of "psychological safety" where individuals can freely articulate their ideas without apprehension of judgment or failure.”

“One of the surprising benefits of vulnerability is that it plays a critical role in helping a manager build trust. When leaders regularly display vulnerability, their employees are 5.3X more likely to trust them. Furthermore, when leaders genuinely acknowledge their failures or shortcomings, they were 7.5X more likely to maintain trust over those that did not.”

Is vulnerability a key trait of strong leadership?

Why are managers typically reluctant to be vulnerable/show to their team that they don't have the answers to everything?

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.”

How can managers start to exercise their vulnerability in the workplace?

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.


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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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