Thus far over my career of leading and managing others, I’ve found that my toughest challenges have not been technical work issues, struggles to meet team metrics or goals, or worries over team execution matters. While those are demanding, yes, my toughest challenges have been helping people be able to bring their full selves to the team every day, which often includes baggage from life.

I have had to fill sensitive spaces as a leader by loving, supporting, and working with others through life challenges like loss of family and loved ones, divorce, health difficulties, financial issues, harassment & assault, mental and emotional concerns, performance failures, and much more. Despite no formal education in these spaces, I’ve had to wear hats as an unofficial marriage and family counselor, financial advisor, and conflict resolution mediator more often than I can count to best love, lead, and enable people on my team to be successful – both within the team and in life.

These challenges are not unique to my own experiences or a select set of teams or industries. These span across all leadership & management roles. To feel safe and to maximize potential for success on the team, people must be able to bring their full selves to work every day. Thus, to help support others through the challenges of life, leaders must be able and willing to fill sensitive, challenging spaces. This requires a developed sense of and confidence in leader vulnerability.

Moreover, leaders are broadly responsible for pushing their team(s) to get results and to continuously improve the organization. Both require systematic feedback and the development of capabilities. Driving high-quality feedback and development across a team demands the leader to initiate highly sensitive conversations. Again, this requires leaders to be grounded in their identity and able to demonstrate vulnerability.

What is Leader Vulnerability?

Vulnerability as a leader means exposure and transparency. It’s a mechanism to be authentic, confident in who you are, your skills and abilities, and even what you’re not able to do or what you don’t know. It’s being willing to acknowledge you don’t know all and cannot be all, but are committed to doing the best you can and seeking the best for the team. Leader vulnerability in action can look and sound like:

  • I don’t know, but let us go see who does or where we can get the answer.”
  • Caring more about finding the right answer and being helpful than simply being right or sounding smart as the leader.
  • Sharing stories of personal failure to help others maintain a broad perspective through their own challenges.
  • Having the empathy to be fully present with people through challenging scenarios and conversations.
  • Not shying away from seeking and surfacing the truth, for yourself, others, and the team.

The Issue with Leader Vulnerability

The most common issue with vulnerability and leadership is the perception of weakness. Many of us believe we must constantly be the anchor for the team, so we always have to know the answer, showcase extreme confidence, and have it all together. However, there’s a growing base of research revealing this is not the case. Pioneered by Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly and Dare to Lead, research continues to show us that leader vulnerability in the workplace is essential for cultivating safety within the team, building relationships, developing shared ownership across the team, and more.

However, I believe there is a separate challenge with vulnerability and leadership that is not as often discussed – how do we actually build the ability to appropriately and successfully show this vulnerability as leaders? It’s an important step to recognize the need to be vulnerable as a leader, but it’s a whole different matter to develop our ability to.

So, how do leaders effectively build their ability to be vulnerable with others?

To Build Vulnerability, Reflect

We must be willing to seek and surface the truth, both for ourselves and especially others. We cannot sufficiently help others through their challenging issues if we cannot be honest with ourselves about our own. We must build a necessary level of comfort and confidence within ourselves through personal reflection. Then, with a more developed confidence in ourselves, we have the ability to share that with others. Finally, through sharing our stories over time, we are ultimately able to support others’ vulnerability; we can fill those challenging, sensitive leadership spaces to love, lead, and support others through their own issues. But it all starts with the ability to deliberately reflect and be honest within ourselves.

Reflection is the habit of thinking, processing, and connecting to make sense of ourselves, our experiences, and our environments for improved performance in the future. In focusing on reflection for vulnerability, there are a few important topics to reflect on:

  • Yourself: Reflecting on your behaviors, values, and even personality improve your self-awareness. The more accurately you see yourself as others see you improves your ability to acknowledge and own your unique set of skills, actions, and attitudes.
  • Your Performance: Be honest about the results you and your team get, and about the impact you have. Coming to terms with struggles or even failures can open up rich opportunities to learn from those experiences. Conducting personal after-action reviews by asking “why did that happen that way?” can be incredibly powerful.
  • Feedback: Receiving constructive feedback can often feel like going through the stages of grief. We may deny the observation(s), enter some limited season of “leader depression,” all to finally come to terms with the perspective that person shared with us. Being able to fully and appropriately embrace the process of receiving constructive feedback can help your ability to do it better in the future and help others do it too.

How to Reflect for Vulnerability

Finally, the last consideration is how do we reflect to build our sense of leader vulnerability?

  • Thinking Time: Is there a time or place where you can eliminate distractions to purposefully think? This may be in a quiet place of solitude, during mindless chores or activities, or (for me) time spent running. These can be great opportunities for unstructured thinking to process recent experiences or coming to clarity about beliefs.
  • Journaling: Having the confidence to place your thoughts and feelings about sensitive topics is an important step to owning the matter and developing vulnerability. There are many different ways to journal from unstructured (pouring thoughts onto blank paper) to structured (answering routine prompts). Find what works best for you and begin a small daily or weekly habit.
  • Mentorship: Expressing and processing relevant matters in your life with a trusted mentor can be hugely impactful. If nothing else, it forces you to articulate the matter, your thoughts and feelings, and being willing to hear another’s perspective around it.

In closing, remember that leaders can and must use the habit of personal reflection to develop their leader vulnerability. It ultimately allows us to fill these challenging leadership spaces that present themselves daily as we lead teams, which enables everyone to bring their full selves to work.

Learn More!

If interested in exploring leader vulnerability and how to leverage reflection as a tool to develop it, we encourage you to check out these 3×5 Leadership resources and recommended books!


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Picture credit: 2nd picture from friend of 3×5 Leadership, Josh Wiley!

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