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Why the best leaders are vulnerable: 5 benefits of vulnerability-based leadership

Despite extensive research in the area of vulnerability, many managers are still uncomfortable with the idea of letting their guard down, embracing their vulnerability and admitting that they don’t know all the answers.

This is not surprising, given all the negative associations the word “vulnerable” has.

Collins dictionary defines “vulnerable” as “weak”, “easily hurt” and “without protection”. These are hardly words that come to mind when we think of leaders, so is it any surprise that it still remains a real challenge for managers to embrace their vulnerability and put it on display for others to see?

What’s more, many feel the pressure to project an image of confidence, competence, and authority, especially if these qualities are the reason why they were promoted to managers in the first place.

This is particularly prevalent in new managers, who may be wrestling with the acute “imposter syndrome” and struggling to prove their worthiness of the promotion, higher paycheck or the new status.

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Brené Brown, a prominent researcher and a New York Times bestselling author, defines vulnerability as simply “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”. So often we treat vulnerability as a choice when it rarely is. To be alive means to be vulnerable. The choice is, however, is whether we embrace it or hide it.

Embracing vulnerably, especially as a people leader, may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it’s one of the most courageous and transformative decisions a manager can make.

Below are just some of the many reasons why being vulnerable makes a better leader.

Culture of Innovation and Learning:

Vulnerability is a birthplace of innovation. Why is that?

Managers create unspoken rules of what’s acceptable and not acceptable in the workplace, so when leaders are not afraid of sharing their mistakes and lessons they learned in the process, they create a culture of innovative imperfection, where it is recognized that innovation is not a perfect science and is often born from imperfect ideas.

A leader, who is comfortable with not knowing all the answers and is willing to ask for help from his team, not only fosters a culture of sharing and collaboration, but directly benefits from innovative solutions.

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On the other hand, a manager that overemphasizes accomplishments can create a culture of perfection with a low tolerance for errors, where employees are afraid to ask for help or venture outside of their comfort zone. Chasing perfection can often lead to increased stress, energy drain and finger pointing as employees’ perceived value is directly tied to the end result.

Employee Loyalty and Trust:

Keeping distance and being tough may feel like a safe and a logical choice for managers. After all, if you are seen as a leader who cares too much, won’t you look too “soft”? Won’t that make people relax and lose respect for you? 

Well, research conducted by Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy demonstrated that leaders who project warmth are, in fact, more effective than those who use toughness because employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind.

Trust is directly linked to authenticity. While we may try to pretend to be perfect, confident and knowing all the answers in order to be respected and admired by others, pretense often has the opposite effect intended.

Research by Paula Niedenthal shows that we tend to see right through the pretense and feel disconnected. Our brains are constantly scanning for clues in the form of body language, tone of voice, so we can unconsciously pick up when someone is being insincere and inauthentic.

When leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable, let their guard down and open up, it creates real connections and develops trust and loyalty.

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Improved Job Satisfaction

Projecting a false image of confidence and authority can be exhausting and isolating for managers and can fuel the “imposter syndrome”. It can lead to a waste of time and energy spent filling the knowledge gaps, increased stress and feelings of loneliness.

While showing the real self can be daunting at first, in the long run, it leads to a much more enjoyable and productive work experience and creates a work culture that becomes a source of energy instead of energy drain. 

Improved Employee Effectiveness:

Leaders, who are not afraid to share their mistakes and approach failures with self-compassion, encourage others to do the same.

As a result, employees are more willing to admit their own mistakes early in the process and ask for help when needed, instead of spinning their wheels for days or covering up issues.

Having the freedom to fail inevitably leads to fewer mistakes, saves time and improves the quality of the work.

Higher Employee Engagement:

Employee engagement has been one of the most highly discussed topics in recent years and for a good reason. Top performing companies take pride in placing it at the top of their goals, and for a good reason.

Engaged employees are better producers, more committed and are happier at work. According to Gallup, companies with higher employee engagement outperform those with lower engagement in customer ratings, productivity, and profitability. They also see lower turnover, fewer safety incidents and lower number of quality defects.

Engagement in the workplace is about emotional commitment to the organization and its goals, so it’s not surprising that leaders play a key role when it comes to creating a culture of engagement. Emotional commitment is built by creating trust, open communication, clear goals, and human connection, which is not possible without the leader being authentic.

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Managers who are brave enough to embrace their vulnerability are rewarded in many ways: through creating an engaging place to work, attracting and retaining the best talent and having loyal and dedicated employees.

There are opportunities for practicing vulnerability in the workplace every day and can be as simple as asking someone for help, sharing lessons learned from a failure, asking someone how their child is. Your employees will feel respected, valued and, as a result, more loyal.

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