The power of vulnerability in leadership

In the past vulnerability was often equated to weakness. Today it is often seen as one of the most crucial attributes for good leadership and it can help school leaders and educators to build trust and inspire their teams.

Articles / 6 mins read

Vulnerability: a six-syllable buzzword du jour that can make school leaders and classroom teachers alike shudder. What’s the modern obsession with bearing all, and being comfortable crying in public?

Fortunately, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Understood correctly, it can be a pretty helpful concept for school leaders and educators to help build trust and inspire their teams.

Vulnerability has evolved

In days gone by, the concept of vulnerability was often equated to weakness. However, it's been reframed to showcase strength in today's world.  It’s often seen as one of the most crucial attributes for good leadership.

Author Madeleine L'Engle highlights this shifting narrative when she writes:

"When we were children, we used to think that when we were grownup, we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable."

So, what if we told you that conventional wisdom got it wrong. What if we told you that vulnerability is actually, one of the greatest assets to leadership? 

So, what's it all about?

Vulnerability is intrinsically linked to courage. Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown is leading the charge on how vulnerability creates better leaders.

Brené Brown reasons vulnerability is the most accurate way to measure courage as it allows researchers to gage your fearlessness. She argues that we can measure how brave you are by how vulnerable you're willing to be.

As humans, Brené Brown states our deepest fear is shame because we believe it will disconnect us from our peers, resulting in isolation. Therefore, the fear of losing human connection can discourage us from being vulnerable. Yet, Brené Brown argues that vulnerability is essential for deeper relationships and good leadership, which she defines as the courage to face "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure."

 

So, it's not airing your dirty laundry at work then?

Definitely not. Vulnerability isn’t simply extreme transparency for the sake of it.

"Do I have to cry at the office to show my employees my softer side?" "Is it brave to tell the whole class how insecure I am about that pimple on my nose right before a big presentation?"

Well, yes and no! While we don't recommend regular emotional outbursts at school, or harping on about your domestic woes, a certain amount of openness (within the right boundaries) leads to greater trust.

Ok, but how?

Our rule of thumb is fairly simple on this:  if you have live, unresolved feelings about an issue or situation, it probably isn’t one to share. Whilst vulnerability can be humanising and connecting, staff ought not feel like they need to comfort or support their line manager.

Remember, your team doesn't need to know the details of your relationship troubles, but you could mention that you're going through a stressful personal situation if it starts to affect your work. That will help your team to understand you and may help them to feel compassion rather than frustration if you’re acting a little differently than normal. It will also empower them to share when they are facing similar personal issues and reach out for support.

You don’t have to share the full extent of your imposter syndrome with your team, but you might turn to a team mate with a particular area of expertise for help and advice on something you’re struggling with. This will help to create a supportive culture and allow your team members to feel valued.

You may not feel comfortable sharing a recent diagnosis of depression, but you might share that you’re currently feeling a bit ‘flat’ or low energy. That might give a nervous classroom teacher the courage they need to disclose their own feelings of anxiety, creating a safe culture to discuss mental health and self-care.

You may share when you really struggled with the behaviour of a particular class. This could help open up a conversation with your staff about behaviour management and its effects on individual wellbeing.

When you're honest with your colleagues and peers about who you are, they will naturally feel a deeper and more authentic connection to you.

 

Okay, that all sounds great. But I can't face adding more stuff to my to-do list. You need to convince me it’ll help me be a better leader!?

This is a fair question! Who among us wants to add yet another thing to our to-do list? And the last thing we’re advocating is a competition to be the most pitch-perfect, vulnerable leader.

But if you make room to show some vulnerability when it really counts, you might find the burden of being perfect all the times is lifted. Sharing something you struggled with, in a team meeting might help cement the good will needed to make a request of a colleague in a more demanding context.

This gives you newfound opportunities to embrace who you are, and exactly who you’re showing up to work as each day. This can help to lessen the load and help you to view your never ending to do list with a fresh – and more realistic – perspective. 

Interesting! So, how can this vulnerability thing help my team?

Vulnerability can help your team in several ways:

  • Psychological safety and wellbeing are enhanced in environments where vulnerability is met with positivity and rewarded. This leads to "high performing and inclusive cultures."
  • When people see a leader's authenticity and courage, they feel freedom to do the same, thus enhancing feelings of belonging.
  • Active vulnerability empowers people to speak their truths and, in turn, creates a better school environment for all. Vulnerability is, after all, the greatest antidote to hostility, and when you show vulnerability during difficult conversations, defensiveness is often disarmed.
  • Allows teams to tackle problems with greater clarity, foresight, and speed. It’s easier to problem solve when people aren’t trying to hide tiny errors, or can be open about needing more information.
  • Building better relationships and encouraging people to ask for help when they need it. This can subsequently lead to greater innovation and better collaboration amongst team members.
  • Diminished stress and more significant support when everyone feels safe to share how they're feeling or what they are struggling with. Research has also shown that connection fosters loyalty.

Inspirational speaker and author Simon Sinek echo's how expressing vulnerability in leadership is to be truly human:

"A leader, first and foremost, is a human. Only when we have the strength to show our vulnerability can we truly lead."

As a leader, you can show vulnerability by:

  • Actively listening to your peers and focusing on the act of listening and understanding rather than having all the right answers.
  • Admit when you have made a mistake and have the courage to say, "I was wrong."
  • Embracing moments of uncertainty and trying to find the potential, even if that means asking for help.
  • Speaking your honest truth (kindly), even if it might ruffle some feathers because you know it will benefit the organisation and the team.

Sources

School leaders' support
School leaders' support