I had a wonderful experience when I coauthored the book Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success with my good friend Colleen Barrett, president emeritus of Southwest Airlines. Colleen has a delightful point of view about vulnerability in leadership. She says:
People admire your strengths, but they respect your honesty regarding your vulnerability.
Too many leaders are closed books when it comes to relating to their teams. They are distant and detached, both physically and emotionally. Like the Wizard of Oz, these leaders are afraid to allow their people to look “behind the curtain” for fear they will be seen as less than perfect.
Colleen believes when leaders express vulnerability, it shows that they own their personal positive and negative characteristics and are willing to be themselves around their direct reports. This accomplishes two things: (1) it allows team members to get to know their boss as a person, not a title; and (2) it builds trust by letting people know it’s okay for them to let down their guard as well.
Brené Brown, the famous researcher and bestselling author of Dare Greatly and Atlas of the Heart, has been studying and writing about vulnerability for years. She says leaders need to be courageous and take chances that allow them to make a difference, but they also need to be vulnerable because they will inevitably make mistakes along the way. Being vulnerable requires humility—but that’s not the same as lacking confidence. It’s about being real.
I think being your true self at work is so important. Are you willing to let your people see the real you? Consider taking these practical steps:
Focus mostly on others, not yourself. Why? Because people who are self-focused behave in ways that preserve their carefully curated (but counterfeit) public image. Being others-focused is about working alongside your people and meeting their needs—not being perfect.
Here’s a shocker: your people already know you have flaws! So if you make a mistake, admit it. If you need help, ask for it. When leaders admit their mistakes and ask for help, it creates stronger, more trusting relationships with team members.
Dropping all pretenses and letting your people get to know the person behind the title won’t cause them to lose respect for you. Quite the opposite. It will allow them to see you for who you really are—a confident leader who cares about their people and is comfortable in their own skin.
Every day, one of my friends sends me a quote from a little book called Live and Learn and Pass It On, edited by H. Jackson Brown. Here is one I particularly enjoy:
“I’ve learned that everything I truly value has been gained by vulnerability on my part. It is the secret to life.” (Anonymous, age 21)
The reason I love this quote is because it reminds me of the work of Brené Brown, who describes herself as a researcher and storyteller. Brené spoke at our client conference last fall and was one of the first people to study and write about the power of vulnerability.
As a leader, you might think that if you admit to your people you don’t know how to solve every problem, they will see you as weak. Quite the contrary. When you show your vulnerabilities, rather than thinking less of you, people will think more of you. Why? Because they already know you don’t know everything!
Colleen Barrett, president emeritus of Southwest Airlines and my coauthor on the book Lead with LUV*, has been known to say, “People admire your skills, but they love your vulnerability.” When you are willing to acknowledge that you don’t have it all together, your people—including customers and family members—know they might have a chance to play a part and make a contribution.
Brené Brown says being vulnerable requires courage as well as humility. Most people who aren’t willing to show their vulnerability don’t want to admit they are scared little kids inside. Being humble is not the same as lacking confidence. I have always said “People with humility don’t think less of themselves; they just think about themselves less.”
So, have a vulnerable, courageous, and humble day. Isn’t it great to know you don’t need to have all the answers to be admired by others?
People have studied the character traits of great leaders for years, and I believe humility is one of the most important qualities of a successful leader. I’ve always described humility in leaders like this—people with humility don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less. They put others first.
I recently spent some time talking with Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. She also has one of the most popular TED talk videos on vulnerability that has been viewed by more than 25 million people. Brené researches and writes about courage and vulnerability. She explains that leaders need to be courageous and take chances that allow them to make a difference, but they also need to be vulnerable because they will make mistakes along the way. When leaders admit to those mistakes and ask for help, relationships grow stronger and more respectful.
Being humble, courageous and vulnerable just means being yourself—and keeping it real. If you need help, ask for it. If you make a mistake, admit it. That doesn’t seem so hard does it? Give it a try and see how your relationships improve.