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In many circles, admitting vulnerability is like confessing a major character flaw. For decades, we’ve been taught that leaders should be calm, decisive and unflappable pillars of strength. While conventional wisdom says that being vulnerable is a weakness, the counterintuitive truth is that it can be a leader‘s greatest strength. Rather than thinking of vulnerability as being submissive or weak, it should be reframed as having the courage to be yourself and forge real, human connections with employees.
This is the idea behind my project, Vivid Minds. It’s a space for leaders and visionaries to be candid about their challenges and how these moments shaped their lives. Experts agree that vulnerability shapes better leaders. Here are three reasons why:
1. It makes you more trustworthy and empathetic
Doctor Brene Brown has studied the idea of vulnerability for years. She and other researchers have found that vulnerability, or “emotional exposure,” is far more effective than maintaining a “professional distance” when bringing a team together.
At a recent event, organized by Parlor Social Club, thought leader and performance coach David Bishop, who formerly led MGM and Sony, spoke about his research into “human-centered leadership.” He and several colleagues noted that authenticity (another way to frame vulnerability) is a key component of being a successful leader.
When a founder can admit to their team that they’re not in the right emotional headspace for a meeting or are distracted by a personal emergency, it shows a level of humanity that employees both resonate with and appreciate.
The thing about this is that your team can tell when something isn’t right. As humans, we are uniquely wired to read facial expressions, tone and body language as a way to shape our interactions. So, your team can subconsciously pick up on these cues even if you try to hide them.
When there’s an obvious discrepancy between your expressions and your words, the sense of inauthenticity can leave subordinates feeling uncomfortable and disconnected from you. Thus, when you dare to be honest and open with your team, they can sense this, making them feel more empathetic and trusting of you.
2. It helps your team believe in your cause
Often, entrepreneurs start a business because they feel passionate about solving a problem or changing how something is done. In many cases, founders start companies as a response to their personal stories. Sharing the raw, sometimes uncomfortable or “messy” truth behind their inspiration is the kind of vulnerability that can create a powerful, tight-knit team of like-minded individuals.
One example is the story of Shane Heath, the mind behind the coffee alternative brand MUDWTR. Heath spent years in the heart of Silicon Valley, working for tech companies and co-founding two of his own. Throughout this time, he became strongly addicted to caffeine. However, he noticed that as he drank more coffee, his mental health seemed to worsen.
As he began reflecting on this and experimenting with alternatives that would allow him to experience the pleasure of the “coffee ritual” without the adverse side effects, he settled on a blend of tea, spices and adaptogens that he jokingly referred to as “mud.”
His openness and vulnerability about all of the past struggles that led him to create MUDWTR allowed him to surround himself with a team of investors, partners and employees who not only believed in him, but believed in his mission as well.
Vulnerability allows people to resonate deeply with your passion. It ignites a spark that makes them extremely loyal and eager to give their all to the cause.
3. It gets you through tough times
Every founder knows that hardships can come at any moment. For Archana Patchirajan, the difficulty came from a lack of capital. She had to gather her team and announce that she had to let them go, because she could no longer pay them.
However, her team unanimously agreed that they would rather take a 50% pay cut than let the company go under. After a few years of hard work, Patchirajan was able to sell the company for $14 million. That company is Hubbl, a well-known digital marketing brand. Since then, Patchirajan has worked on many startups, and her staff follows her to each new venture.
When asked why they stand by her so staunchly, the answers were all variations of “because she is a genuine, people-first leader.” Employees noted that she maintains a family dynamic with everyone and chooses to be honest about her weaknesses and doubts. She invests time and effort into personal relationships with each employee, so they are willing to stand by her through successes and failures.
In her book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown says, “The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing. It’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”
This sentiment is especially relevant for entrepreneurs. Founders can’t always predict or control their company’s path, but having the courage to be vulnerable and authentic with your team during tough times can forge a strong bond that lasts even if the company does not.
This kind of vulnerability positively affects founders’ mental health. It can be difficult to feel like you have to bear the weight of a struggling organization alone. It can cause severe burnout, depression or even resentment. Sharing your struggles allows others to help you bear the burden or offer empathy and emotional support.
Understanding all that it takes to be a good leader is challenging at the best of times. When you subscribe to the incorrect and outdated notion that a leader must project a “calm, cool and composed” image no matter what, it makes the job nearly impossible.
The truth is that vulnerability is an asset to great leaders. Choosing to lean into authenticity and vulnerability allows you to inspire and connect with people on a deeper, more meaningful level, making you a leader people are eager to follow.