How vulnerability can make you a better leader

Letting down your corporate facade can be a great way of building rapport.

by Shawn Callahan
Last Updated: 08 Jul 2019

It shows great bravery to be open with people in a way that might go beyond the carefully managed professional persona you build every day, but vulnerability has two important uses for leaders in business. 

First, it’s a way to build relations with people: reveal something of your character and your listener will trust you more. Harvard vulnerability researcher Jeff Polzer says that in a team environment, "being vulnerable gets the static out of the way and lets us do the job together, without worrying or hesitating".  

Secondly, as a leader you want to know what’s happening in the business, and the people who are embedded in it will always know more than you can individually. To hear their stories you need to show you’re a person others can open up to. 

One tool leaders can use, which bestselling author Brené Brown exemplifies, is stories. Reveal an experience in an easy-to-remember format and the listener can engage with your message. Ask any specialist in knowledge retention, card counters for example, and they’ll explain how they craft a story to make disparate facts stick together.  

Business leaders can use the same tool. I’ve spent years teaching leaders to engage, influence and inspire with simple stories (Hollywood-style stories such as the ‘hero's journey’ don’t cut it in business).  

There is a misplaced hesitancy to share vulnerability at work. I was running a workshop recently with a group of consultants and one of them shared with me how he had been given a task with what he considered impossible targets. He shared his concerns with his boss and it didn’t go well.

With reflection he happened upon an insight which changed his perspective and gave him a new life lesson. But could he share this story, he asked? I said absolutely yes. He had failed, recovered and learned a lesson. Sharing that story invited his colleagues to reciprocate and in the sharing, rapport was built. This is a foundation for great team work. 

The simple sharing of stories illustrating vulnerability creates a safer space for people to be themselves and make mistakes. And this type of psychological safety is what Google’s research on high performing groups shows is a defining characteristic of an effective team.  

Stories of our mistakes can also be some of the most important knowledge we share with our colleagues because we show what not to do. I experienced this a few years ago where I took on a brief from a company to develop its strategy story. 

As usual I tried to organise a workshop for the stakeholders, but was told I’d have to interview the executives individually. And then when trying to get access to the CEO I was denied. So when it came time to share their newly crafted strategy story to the executives I was stopped shortly after starting and informed by the CEO that "all stories are lies" and unsurprisingly was sacked the next day.  

It taught me a valuable lesson that it’s vital to have all the leaders and the CEO involved in crafting the strategy story. That way they own it. We now would never start a strategy story project unless all the leaders are involved in crafting the process, and if they want to shortcut the process I tell them the "all stories are lies" story. 

If you’re a senior leader who is looking to connect with your workforce, start by showing vulnerabilities. Try sharing real life experiences where it didn’t work out and in the process build strong and resilient teams where each member understands and appreciates the other.

Shawn Callahan is founder of Anecdote and the author of Putting Stories to Work

Image credit: Pixabay/Pexels


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