The vast majority of industry leaders have one thing in common: They are unwavering in guarding their personal challenges and struggles from stakeholders, peers, and subordinates. The projection of strength or stoicism has been traditionally viewed as favorable.
They do this at their peril.
In business and leadership, there is the perception that if you aren’t the best and don’t compete, you lose. Too often leading is viewed as a zero-sum game and in fact, for leaders who are unwilling to share their vulnerabilities, they end up the losers in that so-called game.
A conflict experienced by leaders lies between keeping the external competitors to the company at bay, while engaging internally to develop the cultural identity for the people within their business, and it creates tension and fear for leaders. To maintain their status, the common response is to hide their personal and professional vulnerabilities from everyone, thinking it is best for business.
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The value of vulnerability is quite the opposite. In fact, sharing vulnerability, increases the competitive advantage for a leader and their business, while having a unifying the effect for all stakeholders. This is evident in two ways:
- When vulnerabilities are shared with others, there is a “like me” affect, that attracts people who are more likely to support and rally around a leader they can relate to. This cohesion strengthens culture and commitment to collectively move a business toward its goals.
- Additionally, leaders, like anyone, reconcile their own personal challenges through disclosure. Lowering emotional defenses result in improvements in mental health. The ensuing benefit allows leaders to shift from prioritizing self-preservation to act in the best interests of their peers and the business. Being vulnerable shifts egoistic action to ones that support the collective good.
While sharing vulnerability is a positive attribute of leaders, cultural influences and personal fears keep them from taking the step and it is affecting their mental wellness and hurting the workplace. Even when leaders are struggling to hold their team together, make good decisions, or keep their heads above water, they rarely divulge their challenges. Why would they do this?
There are two key reasons.
The first hurdle to leaders sharing their vulnerability is the ingrained perception of what leadership means to them. Leaders don’t often share, because of they believe that success is achieved by:
- Leaders who are strong, independent, and decisive visionaries driving the pace of achievement.
- Leaders who work tirelessly, set the tone, and get things done – all without complaint.
- Leaders who are always in control and set the tone from the top. People won’t follow a leader that admits feeling out of control, doubt or displays anything other than a positive outlook.
The above leadership beliefs contain inherently good characteristics, like outward strength, internal resolve and a driving energy constitute important aspects of leadership. However, few leaders ever achieve this unless they are willing to express some form of vulnerability.
Many people see vulnerability as a sign or signal of weakness. But, isn’t this a more accurate depiction of reality: The strongest people are the ones who are willing to be vulnerable?
When leaders choose to remain stoic and guarded, or don’t share their personal concerns, their leadership choices are influenced by the need to protect their image or authority. They might avoid or decline outside input because they perceive it as a threat, or have a distrust of others. This leads to a reduction of cooperation or sharing of ideas and isolation of the leader from those whom they require support. These actions are motivated by self-preservation.
The more a leader internalizes their professional or personal challenges, the more stress builds in the effort to keep a secret of hide vulnerabilities. This manifests in many ways from mental illness, depression, or anxiety as well as lack of sleep, or even self harm. Clearly when the leader is unwell, their personal and professional lives suffer, as do the daily experiences of all affected stakeholders. None of the outcomes are good for the leader, or the company.
The second, and more important, hurdle to leaders opening up about their challenges is fear.
Many different fears exist that prevents leaders from admitting challenges or vulnerability:
- People will lose confidence in them and they will be overtaken or replaced
- They will be perceived as being weak and be taken advantage of
- They will be considered a pariah and suffer socially
- They will have to publicly reveal their biggest personal challenges – or traumas.
Leaders personalize the fear they will be undermined or overtaken if they exhibit weakness, or vulnerability. They fear the competition will take what is theirs, or the company will suffer, and their role may become irrelevant. This places the business and career at risk and thus their own job security or reputation. As well, they open themselves up to losing status, or authority in their role.
When a leader is guided by fear, they often avoid decisive action. They will side-step responsibility, or worse, will hoard it. Fear manifests as a lack of trust in themselves, or in others. When that exists, leaders become severely limited in their role.
Naturally, ego-centric decision-making, or fear-based “fight or flight” emotions are not conducive to leaders making clear-headed, quality choices that are in the best interests of the company, or culture. Often, the leader is not aware of their actions or avoidance of revealing vulnerabilities.
So what are we to do with leaders who work continuously to live up to society’s construct of leadership, are fear-based and perpetually hide their perceived vulnerabilities?
Our first step is to admit and normalize the conversation around the fact that vulnerability is closely linked to mental wellness and decision making. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that avoidance of vulnerability, or lack of awareness of the importance of it, is directly connected to stress, anxiety and negative behavior patterns that hurt performance.
Next, is to foster a supportive leadership culture that values vulnerability as a positive quality of leadership and mental wellness. When acceptance and encouragement of vulnerability as a strength occurs, there is increased cooperation, collaboration, and alignment of people.
Lastly, to acknowledge and rally around vulnerability as leadership strength, by removing perceived and real risk for leaders who choose to step forward to address their professional challenges or personal traumas.
When leaders see vulnerability as strength, and the company and community that surround them fosters a culture of support, they are able to realize their full potential.
Written by Mike Skrypnek & Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D.