Do You Have The Courage To Be Vulnerable?

Vulnerability is frequently shown last on any list of leadership attributes, not only alphabetically, but also because most of us believe it’s the least important trait of an effective leader. For many client service providers, rain makers and mentors, vulnerability is equated with weakness, to be shunned rather than embraced.

To further reflect on this quality perceived as “weakness,” Merriam-Webster defines vulnerability as:  1) capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; or 2) open to attack or damage, as in vulnerable to criticism.  To be vulnerable is to expose ourselves to the possible embarrassment of looking silly or unintelligent in front of our clients and colleagues, or even worse, losing a proposal, a client or an assignment. To be vulnerable runs against our self-interest in looking good, feeling good and making more money.  So why would any aspiring leader have the courage to be vulnerable?

Because, above all else, aspiring leaders must gain the trust of their clients and colleagues.  Contrary to what the world and our instincts tell us, we cannot earn or retain someone’s trust by pretending to have the answers when we don’t, or that everything is under control when it’s not.

In his book entitled Getting Naked, Patrick Lencioni opens by saying, “Without the willingness to be vulnerable, we will not build deep and lasting relationships in life. That’s because there is no better way to earn a person’s trust than by putting ourselves in a position of unprotected weakness and demonstrating that we believe they will support us.”

According to Lencioni, our reluctance to be vulnerable is driven by three fears:  1) the fear of losing the business; 2) the fear of being embarrassed; and 3) the fear of feeling inferior.  To overcome these fears, Lencioni offers the following ideas for “getting naked” and being more vulnerable in all of our relationships:

  • “Tell the kind truth” – be willing to put relationships at risk by delivering a difficult message with dignity and humanity
  • Enter the danger”– step right into the middle of uncomfortable situations that everyone else is afraid to address
  • “Ask dumb questions” – risk the humiliation of being perceived as unprepared by asking questions others are afraid to ask
  • “Make dumb suggestions” – don’t hold back ideas to avoid  the position of being embarrassed
  • “Make everything about the client” –  don’t shift the attention to your own experience and knowledge
  • “Admit your weaknesses and limitations” – don’t try to be something you’re not

In The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Stephen M.R. Covey details “13 Behaviors” which, if seriously practiced, can build and restore trust where it is absent or lacking. While “being vulnerable” is not specifically included in Covey’s trust building behaviors, the following trust building behaviors help complete the picture of what it means to be vulnerable:

  • Talk straight – it can be risky to tell the truth, but clients and people respect and trust you more when you do
  • Create transparency – people trust a “real” leader who admits their weaknesses, fears and self-interest
  • Right wrongs – admitting your mistakes and saying “I’m sorry” builds trust; holding on to “being right” wears it down
  • Get better – acknowledging your limitations and openness to continual improvement is to lead by example
  • Confront reality – being willing to talk about the “elephant in the room” increases trust; pretending it’s not there erodes it

Vulnerability is not passive, soft or wimpy.  It takes “strength” to admit when you’re wrong, or don’t not know the answer, or are concerned or afraid, or in need of help.  Vulnerability has much more in common with the more admired leadership attribute of courage, than it does with weakness.  In fact, Merriam-Webster defines courage as the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. Add to that the willingness to take an unpopular stand, enter into a conflict or act with incomplete information.  Bottom line: It takes courage to be vulnerable

We will continue to help our clients succeed by asking “Do You Have the Courage To Be Vulnerable?” If you have ideas or experiences to share on this subject please post them so others can benefit.

Best regards,