Vulnerable Leaders are More Powerful Than They Know

by Jennifer Miller on May 15, 2017

in Leadership

When you think of the most effective leaders you’ve worked with, how would you describe them? Perhaps you said “charismatic,” “energetic,” or “visionary.” One word that probably didn’t spring immediately to your lips? Vulnerable. Which is too bad, because vulnerability is a powerful ally that helps leaders gain the cooperation necessary to get things done at work.

One of the best bosses I ever had was a soft-spoken, thoughtful person who excelled at building relationships with his direct reports. David* had the most amazing talent for speaking honestly about our challenges at hand. I recall one department meeting in which he had to impart a new strategic direction imposed by the corporate headquarters. It was a terrible idea and everyone in the room knew it. When we asked how in the world this new direction made any sense, David simply said, “I don’t know. But we’ll figure it out together.” Rather than put a falsely cheerful face on the news, he admitted that our path forward wasn’t clear, yet he expressed hope that we would prevail.

It wasn’t often that David expressed doubts to our team, so when he did, we knew he was being sincere. Because he was a quietly confident man, David wasn’t afraid to show us a bit of vulnerability. By exposing his uncertainty, David made us want to pull together and figure out the challenge together. Patrick Lencioni, author of the fable The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is a strong proponent of leaders who show vulnerability. Lencioni writes that “the strongest people in life are the ones that are comfortable saying ‘I don’t know.’” To Lencioni, vulnerability is not at all soft– “it’s the key to building great teams.”

There’s a scientific basis for why vulnerability is an important leadership attribute: humans are wired to help one another. In the January-February 2017 print edition of the Harvard Business Review, neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak puts forth his team’s decades-long research into how humans build trust. The article, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Zak explains that when an individual asks for help, the oxytocin levels of the person receiving the request increases. (Oxytocin is a brain chemical that is associated with, among other things, social bonding.) In other words, when a person demonstrates vulnerability, others are socially inclined to assist. Far from being a sign of leadership weakness, expressing uncertainty or requesting assistance (in moderate doses) builds camaraderie. “Asking for help is the sign of a secure leader– one who engages everyone to reach goals,” writes Zak.

According to a Smartpulse poll launched earlier this year by Smartbrief on Leadership, about 43% of readers polled felt they were very comfortable being seen as “vulnerable” with their teams. For the remaining 57% who keep things closer to the vest, here are some phrases that will open yourself up to your team in an appropriate way.

  • I’m sorry I was such a jerk yesterday.
  • You are the expert in this area, not me — how about if you take the lead?
  • I don’t know the answer to that question; let me get back to you.
  • I’m not sure — does anybody else know the answer?
  • Yeah, I’m not certain about this new policy either. But I know that we can sort through it.

Notice a couple of key elements to these statements:

  1. They express hope that things will get better or offer a way to address the concern
  2. The statements are personal versus private, meaning that they express how the speaker is personally experiencing the issue, but they don’t divulge inappropriate “private” information

The archetypical leader is often portrayed as a person with nerves of steel, unwavering in their confidence for the path they’ve set for their followers. It’s true that people want strength in their leaders. It’s equally true that they want their leaders to show some humanity. And the occasional display of vulnerability in the workplace is a very appropriate way to do that. It makes you more powerful than you know.


*Name changed to protect this leader’s identity.

A version of this post appeared as part of Smartbrief’s Originals series.


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