Vulnerability: The true strength—and necessity—of great leaders and innovators

“If you are humble, you are no threat to anybody. Some behave in a way that dominates others. That’s a mistake. If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important—and you do that by being genuine and humble. You know that other people have qualities that may be better than your own. Let them express them.”

– Nelson Mandela

We all have vulnerabilities. It’s one of those nagging facts of being human. Leaders are no different. Exceptional leaders have the self-awareness to know their vulnerabilities and the strength and courage to reveal them.

The image of an all-knowing, blustering, dictatorial (no matter how benevolent) leader is an outdated one that no longer matches the kind of interconnected, interdependent global economy we all work and live in today. With technology exponentially upping the rate of change, and global competition putting unprecedented demands on the need for constant innovation and nimbleness, leaders simply cannot go it alone. They must understand their need for others, as well as their blind spots, and then fill them accordingly. The cushion to react after an issue arises that the pre-digital age afforded has gone the way of the Blackberry.

Researcher Brené Brown has spent years looking at the power of vulnerability. As a self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist (a distinctly invulnerable trait), it didn’t start out that way. Her research began by looking at human connection—the sense of love and belonging. She found that the only difference between those who have a strong sense of connection and those who don’t is that those who have it believe they’re worthy of it.

When Brown dug deeper to find the underpinning of worthiness, she found vulnerability. Ultimately, she found that those with an unwillingness to be vulnerable are inevitably captive by shame, fear and a struggle to connect with others. Those with the willingness to be vulnerable free themselves up to be driven by compassion, courage and a sense of worthiness.

It’s easy to imagine what leadership looks like when it too is held captive by shame, fear and a struggle to connect with people. We’ve all probably seen it at some point and have, thus, dedicated all job searches since to trying to avoid it.

The other kind of leadership—that which is driven by the strength to be vulnerable—encourages everyone to show his or her own vulnerability. In turn, employee connection and empathy improves, which has been linked to company-wide business improvements. Innovation can skyrocket, as, like it is to vulnerability, taking risks with no guarantees is a cornerstone of innovation. As Brown has said, “Vulnerability is the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity. There can be zero innovation without vulnerability.” Emotionally intelligent leaders recognize that admitting weaknesses is nothing more than admitting humanness. These leaders then make room for humility, and, as Mandela said, can then let those with the skills they lack express them, in the ultimate best interests of the company.

People want to work under the inspiring leadership of those who are motivated by compassion, courage and a sense of self-worth. So how can leaders become more vulnerable? By doing the self-exploratory work, which is often possible only with the assistance of an outside perspective—a person who is not wearing our lens of shame and fear, but rather can help us remove it.

This creates an opportunity for HR and talent managers and boards to position leadership coaching not as remedial, but as empowering. In today’s hyper competitive economy and the hyper transparency consequent of social media, offering leadership coaching as a benefit to a job can be a game changer for success and a powerful preemptive tool.

Watch Brené Brown’s TED Talk, which has been viewed more than 15 million times, for more on how a willingness to be vulnerable transforms all aspects of life.

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