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Closing the Gap Between Leadership and Vulnerability at Work

Nicole Klemp

For business leaders and managers, it can be tough to find the right balance between showing strong and competent leadership while also being vulnerable about the challenges, failures, and struggles of being a human being. Tip too far in either direction, and your ability to lead effectively can be compromised.

This is a conundrum that Jacob Morgan has spent years studying. The author recently sat down with Adam Weber on the HR Superstars podcast to discuss his new book, Leading With Vulnerability

For the book, Jacob interviewed over 100 CEOs and 14,000 employees to better understand the unique challenges of introducing vulnerability in leadership. On the podcast, he shared what he took away from those conversations, as well as his own journey and what he has personally learned about the power of vulnerability at work.

Keep reading for some of Jacob’s actionable tips and strategies, and discover how you can integrate vulnerability into your own leadership style.

How is vulnerability in the workplace different?

While many leaders understand the value of being vulnerable in their personal lives, many struggle to embrace vulnerability at work. The workplace creates a very different dynamic, especially for those in leadership positions. To avoid opening themselves up to some perceived risk, leaders—especially those at the highest levels—often put up walls around their personal feelings or challenges. 

“Until recent years, largely due to critiques of the toxic masculinity fueling this stereotype, the idea of showing vulnerability or emotion on the job was viewed as inappropriate at best, and at worst, mortifying,” said Jacob.

Through his research, Jacob began to realize that because of the structures and hierarchies in the workplace, showing vulnerability at work is not the same as being vulnerable with, say friends or family members. There is a different balance that must be recognized (and normalized) in the workplace in order for leaders to embrace vulnerability. 

“What a lot of these CEOs were telling me is that on the one hand, their employees wanted them to be these strong, visionary, confident, and competent leaders,” he said. “And on the other hand, these same employees were asking their leaders to talk about their failures, their challenges, their emotional struggles, their feelings.”

While a CEO might feel right at home making a million-dollar business decision or going on stage in front of thousands of people, that same leader could be terrified of sharing with their team that they’ve struggled with imposter syndrome in their career, or dealt with a mental health condition.  

When you’ve built a career around being competent and “having it all together,” the idea of being vulnerable with peers or team members can be really scary. But sometimes, to really connect with your team and take your leadership abilities to a new level, you have to step out of your comfort zone and show more of your authentic self. 

The importance of self-compassion

Over the last few years, leader vulnerability has become more culturally acceptable, and even encouraged in many organizations. This progress accelerated during the pandemic, when the workforce grappled with a mental health crisis, and many leaders had to step up for their people like never before. 

The demands of younger generations are also changing work cultures and normalizing vulnerability. Research shows that millennials are much more likely to share their mental health struggles, the challenges of caregiving, and concerns about work-life balance than their Gen X and Boomer colleagues. Gen Z workers are even more comfortable with vulnerability and asking for what they need to achieve better emotional wellness at work.

According to Jacob, the work of vulnerability starts with self-compassion. “You can think of [self-compassion] as how you talk to yourself. I used to have a very negative internal dialogue. My default language was negative; I beat myself up. ‘You’re an idiot. You’re stupid. How could you?’… But when you are self-compassionate, your default is ‘It’s going to be okay. It’s not a big deal. You tried. What did you learn about this situation? What did you learn about yourself and the other person?’ So, I tried to learn to practice self-compassion, and that means talking to yourself in a positive way.” 

Leaders can be competent and vulnerable

The biggest fear that holds many leaders back from vulnerability is that their people will see them as weak or less competent. That’s where the gap must be bridged, to bring leaders into a more authentic place without the need to overshare or put unnecessary burdens on the people they lead.

For example, effective leaders know how to own their mistakes. While it might feel risky to admit them, there is a way to do so that doesn’t compromise your competency. Instead of just saying you made a mistake and apologizing, go a step further and explain what you learned and how you plan to make it right.

“What’s far more effective is to say, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry I messed this up. Here’s what I learned from my mistake. Here’s what I’m going to do going forward to make sure that mistake does not happen again,’” adds Jacob. “Now all of a sudden you’ve demonstrated leadership; you’ve demonstrated that you’re trying to learn to grow, to become more competent, that you’re trying to close the gap.”

Start small and open up at your pace

Leaders who practice vulnerability bring both competence and connection to work. Through sharing their own personal and professional struggles and encouraging a culture of active listening, vulnerable leaders can unlock the potential of their teams and drive high performance. These actions go a long way in creating psychological safety, and fostering an environment where people feel safe to open up about their mental health, difficulties in their personal lives that may impact their work, or any obstacles they face in their roles. 

But while the benefits are clear, finding the courage to be vulnerable can be intimidating. You may wonder how much or how little to share or be transparent about. There may be some personal things that you’d very much like to keep personal. And that’s okay. In fact, according to Brené Brown, it’s crucial for leaders to have boundaries when it comes to being vulnerable at work. “Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability,” she said.

As Jacob shares, starting small is a great, low-risk way to start embracing vulnerability. “Share what you’re comfortable with… So for me, it started to be basic things like what I did over the weekend; just really, really simple stuff and getting more comfortable, sharing more or opening up and putting myself out there and seeing the responses that I get back.” 

Get the full conversation on the HR Superstars podcast

Tune into 15Five’s HR Superstars podcast to hear from other strategic people leaders and industry experts (like Jacob) who are making meaningful impacts in their organizations and shaping the future of work. 

Be inspired and learn how HR professionals like you attract talent, tackle training and development strategies, champion DEI and mental health, improve employee retention and engagement, and more.

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