What Role Does Vulnerability Play in Your Leadership?

Can a leader who protects their vulnerability be effective? Strong leadership requires that people feel comfortable communicating their concerns, their needs, their aspirations and where they need to grow. How well can others be led by a leader who has armor on? The fact is that many of the most powerful leaders have gone through challenging life experiences that helped them grow dramatically. Those experiences hold important lessons that others can learn from and be encouraged by.

My own story started as the loser kid growing up…with bad grades, fights, and often alone on the playground. At an early age, I was beginning to accept my inevitable lifelong journey through Loserville. But something happened my junior year in high school. I learned the game of acting like everyone else acts. Just mimic those people who you want to become so badly. So I joined a sport, improved my appearance and painted on a confident smile day in and day out.

And it worked…really well.

It worked well in my professional life also. But there was a consequence to all of this “acting”. Faking everyone out and hiding behind a false image was hard and tiring work. Unauthentic living was down right exhausting. That exhaustion finally caught up with me. I was completely out of gas and started showing physical signs from the stress including anxiety and high blood pressure.

My body was telling me that I couldn’t play the game anymore. It told me that I had to learn to be who I was, and to truly accept myself. I had to stop the performance and live genuinely.

This was a scary growth process for me, because I knew who I was when I wasn’t performing. I was alone and unaccepted. My transition to authenticity meant that I had to embrace my inner ragamuffin nature. I would have to be ok with myself and gain a sense of personal value and worth even when I felt inadequate. I started to let people in to my life more – my authentic life, not my “presentation” life. I’m more open with my fears. I don’t pretend to have all the answers anymore. I could go on here, but hopefully you get the point.

So how has this whole new vulnerability / transparency thing worked out? I have a better perspective of life – knowing that I’m not really that big of a deal… and, thank God, I don’t have to be. I don’t feel quite as much pressure as I once did. I learned to empathize with others more and I’m more interested in them than I used to be. I am more engaged with life, feeling more and bigger emotions. I have more joy and I’m less anxious about things.

As leaders, we often live with intense pressure. Eventually that pressure will bubble up and explode – maybe causing a personal collapse. Trust from others is so important for leaders. And people trust leaders who are authentic. Those who lead from a guarded state will be exposed and eventually trust will fall.

To grow as leaders, we need to learn to be more vulnerable and authentic. As we are more authentic, we also direct our energies in productive ways as opposed to putting a drain on ourselves trying to keep up a front. The more authentic we are and the more we are willing to let others see our humanity, the greater trust we build. It also allows us to truly impact others so that they can learn from our mistakes and life lessons and become future leaders.

Also, check out this video from TED featuring Brene Brown. She has some very valuable words of wisdom that support this idea. I hope your journey toward authenticity is a valuable one. Onward!

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Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011 Leadership

1 Comment to What Role Does Vulnerability Play in Your Leadership?

  1. Mike,

    I wonder if what most people think of as “vulnerable” is really self pity, essential doubt and lack of “rootedness”. Those are truly scary things, make trust impossible and are not desirable in any leader. I wonder if we came to understand vulnerability as a fruit of being truly rooted, essentially answered and not a lick of self pity that people would come to value it more?

    Also, does this make a “vulnerability index” a good assessment score for a leader?

  2. John Ray on March 2nd, 2011

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Mike Thompson BlogMike Thompson is the CEO of SVI, a leading organizational development company that provides leadership development services to companies such as Walmart, PepsiCo, Tyson Foods, University of Phoenix and many more. Mike is also the author of McGraw Hill's new leadership book The Organizational Champion.

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