Showing vulnerability can be a CEO’s greatest strength

Want your people to bring their whole selves to work? You first.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

You may question how business-critical authenticity at work is, particularly when so many people have been working at home anyway. 

But ask yourself what happens when people don’t feel like they can be themselves. Maybe they don’t speak up. Maybe they keep their head down. Maybe they’re so distracted by the need to put up a facade that their overriding priority every day is just to clock off at 5.30pm. Good luck leading that business through the recession.

So much of it comes back to the leader. A company’s efforts to create a safe, inclusive culture will mean little if the boss continues to project a bulletproof image of themselves as someone with all the answers and without weaknesses.

Consider the results of a study of office-based employees across Singapore, the UK, the US, and United Arab Emirates, where 23 per cent admitted to pulling a sickie to conceal mental illness, anxiety or stress-related reasons because they didn’t think their boss would understand.

Having a leader who is open about their vulnerabilities can do much to foster psychological safety and destigmatise things that sadly often still lead to exclusion in the workplace.

Mediacom’s global COO and EMEA CEO, Josh Krichefski, initially worried that by talking openly about his anxiety in front of employees he “might come across as weak or unable to handle the pressure that a senior job brings with it”.

But Krichefski immediately noticed the transformative impact of sending out an email on his mental health story around the company.

“It had a big impact immediately because people could see it was okay to show your vulnerability and that others actually responded very well to those who shared things. It created a culture where it felt okay to share how you feel”, Krichefski says, adding that it’s imperative for the leader to role model this behaviour, even if that just means not having your game face on all the time.

Indeed, opening up doesn’t have to turn into a downer. Krichefski says that having a more inclusive culture makes work more fun, which in turn leads to better work. “Clients feed off it, prospects feed off it and people who work in the agency feel good and proud to work here.”

Turning a vulnerability into a superpower 

The benefits of openness extend to all things that, rightly or wrongly, you may have considered a vulnerability. For example, recently the CEO of the Institute of Directors, Charlotte Valeur, revealed for the first time publicly that she is autistic.

So what? You may believe in today’s increasingly accepting times that “coming out” as neurodivergent is no longer necessary, but in fact for those with invisible vulnerabilities inclusion lags behind: just 16 per cent of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time employment, despite 77 per cent wanting to work. 

Pip Jamieson, founder of The Dots, sympathises that coming out as neurodivergent is “really tough” because historically there’s been so much stigma around it. 

So Jamieson has shifted how she discusses neurodiversity by rewording the umbrella term as a superpower - people with dyslexia, like her, typically have a wider peripheral vision and take in more data, so “that's why we tend to be more creative, more innovative, and entrepreneurial”. 

In fact, after doing some research Jamieson found that a staggering 35 per cent of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, something she’s found empowering: “Once I changed my brain space from it being a negative to a positive, I personally felt a lot more comfortable talking about it openly and then it almost felt like my mission.”

If you’re not neurodiverse or don’t have mental health problems, you can still do your bit to help others feel comfortable at work, especially if you adopt this state of mind that a weakness is just a strength by another name.

As Jamieson says, if no one has to hide who they are - and that goes for the boss too - then that means “everyone gets to play to their strengths and get support for any challenges they might be having.”

Image credit: TommL via Getty Images

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