I find that the topic of vulnerability comes up frequently in discussions amongst leaders with varying descriptions of what it means to “show vulnerability.”
Here are some questions to expand the dialogue:
- Does vulnerability have to mean showing emotion?
- It’s OK for a woman to have tears and talk about feelings, but still not OK for men?
- What’s the difference between showing vulnerability and showing weakness?
- How do we, as leaders, coach the leaders we work with on how to show up both confident and vulnerable?
And here are some stories from leaders I’ve worked with:
“I was a relatively new leader of a high growth business. We missed our numbers one year, and up in the front of the room, I teared up when I shared the news with my team. I felt shame that I didn’t control my emotions. Yet, the team rallied, each leader coming up to me to commit to what they would do to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
“First at age 18, and then at age 22, I entered the two most emotionless organizations there are, West Point at age 18 and Marines at age 22. In some way, these experiences hardened me to outward emotional signs. Then as a small unit infantry combat commander in Vietnam, we had to suppress and not show any emotions despite what we may have felt inside. To show emotions to the 18 & 19-year-old Marines that we led wasn’t viewed as something commanders did, and we worried that emotions might enter into the brutal things we had to do in the infantry. In our generation, it wasn’t considered ‘Marine like’ to show emotion—which of course led many of us to suppress PTSD feelings.”
“I have been working on culture in my company. Frustrated with the lack of progress, I stood up in front of the entire leadership team, all levels, and told my personal story, my values, my expectations of myself as a leader. Wow, what an impact it had; people began to ‘get it.’ And yet, I discovered that my two senior leaders, both women, struggled with this. They said they work hard to be “professional,” and to them showing or talking about feelings was weak and unprofessional.”
For all leaders, it is important to have followers trust our message. As such, there is a fine line between appearing vulnerable yet confident and appearing weak. These stories speak to different ways to address this challenge.
For me, it’s something like this,
- Vulnerable is I am human. I make mistakes, admit them, learn from them, and move on.
- Weak is I am uncertain. I don’t trust myself, I don’t know what to do.