A young leader I am coaching recently asked me ‘How can I stop appearing to be vulnerable’? Curious as to the intent of the question, I asked ‘what do you mean by vulnerable’? ‘I want to be the rock for my team. I want to be seen as unafraid and able to withstand anything that is thrown at me’ was the quick-fire response. This is a common thread that I have encountered with young (and not so young) leaders - a strong desire to be seen as invincible, unflappable and unmoving.
But is this the best approach? We all know that our workplaces can be demanding and at times unstable. An effective leader is expected to act as a shield from the constant change and chaos that often accompanies our days.
There is no doubt that leaders need to be resilient and strong – but is a ‘rock’ the right metaphor? Rocks are strong, but they’re also unmoving. Despite being constantly exposed to the elements, rocks can go on relatively unchanged. Rocks have this sense of invulnerability about them.
We know from our previous readings, that strong, unchallenged and unmoving opinions are not the traits of a quality leader. In his article ‘Why strong leaders have the courage to show vulnerability’, Joel Garfinkle opens with a quote from Leo Hindry: “A great leader needs to love and respect people, and he needs to be comfortable with himself and with the world. He also needs to be able to forgive himself and others.”
I think this quote nicely summarises the idea that leaders need to be comfortable with being seen as less than perfect. To be truly effective, leaders need to accept their own vulnerably, recognise that they will make mistakes and then, be prepared to forgive themselves. They also need to recognise that their team members will also make mistakes and they must be prepared to forgive them as well. One of the most important qualities an effective leader needs to display is empathy – the ability to understand and forgive others who make mistakes.
Leaders who seek to be seen as ‘fearless and invincible’ are actually suppressing the level of discussion and debate within the team. Leaders who seek to be seen as perfect are in fact discouraging change and the growth of the team, the individuals within the team and, of course, themselves.
As leaders we should realise that being vulnerable is in fact allowing us to be authentic, which in turn makes us more approachable and helps builds trust. When we do make mistakes (and we will), let’s own them, talk about them and learn from them. These behaviours will also help create a culture that values creativity, honesty and openness. After all, we are all human, and humans make mistakes.