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Vulnerability as a Leadership Technique

They say it’s lonely at the top. But why?
by Caitlin Schiller | Oct 27 2014

Well, we expect a lot of our leaders – decisiveness, confidence, commitment, and integrity are just the tip of the iceberg. It sounds like a tall order for anybody, and particularly when you’re young, successfully commanding all of these traits demands you act surer than you feel. But hoodwinking others requires walls to go up and vulnerability to be suppressed, a sure recipe for isolation.


Consider this, though: what if being at the top didn’t preclude being genuine and vulnerable with the people you manage? What if leadership didn’t have to be a lonely affair? According to Mark Goulston, it doesn’t.

Goulston’s book, Just Listen, posits that communicating well is one of the most critical traits a leader should have, and vulnerability is a key component thereof. Vulnerability, Goulston explains, is a tool: when you show vulnerable emotions, like helplessness or fear, you give others the chance to connect and respond. But if you’re hiding yourself – say, behind a mantle of faux confidence – others can’t respond to you correctly. This will limit your understanding of one another and stunt your influence as a leader. By contrast, inviting vulnerability in your team and allowing yourself to show it, too, creates stronger bonds and earns you trust and openness from your employees.

What does vulnerability as a leadership technique look like? Imagine this:

At a busy law firm, an associate breaks down in tears because that morning as he was leaving for work, his daughter cried and shouted that she hated him. His boss walks by and sees him in distress. Although she would have ignored breakdowns like these in the past, she decides to go into his office.

She listens to his story, then tells him that she understands how difficult it is to balance work and family, so she’s working to make the firm more family-friendly. In the past, the firm’s attorneys had worked so much that they hardly saw their kids – an especially difficult situation for parents with young children. She then tells him about her own experience trying to raise children and manage her busy work schedule, admitting that it made her feel out of control and anxious.

Hearing this, the associate continues to cry, and tells her that he’s been trying to quit smoking and gained weight, which is also stressing him out.

End scene. So what happened here? By allowing her employee to freely express his vulnerability, the boss showed him that she cares for his well-being, thus earning more trust and openness. This human moment, relying on both parties’ openness and vulnerability, soldered a new connection that will make the team stronger.

Vulnerability might be a tool, but it’s more than that, too: it’s an opportunity to make the top a little less lonely and a team even more committed.

Read more about the powerful implications of getting human and listening in Goulston’s Just Listen, or check out the 13-minute summary here.

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