• Wednesday, June 19, 2024
businessday logo


Leading with an open heart: The power and peril of vulnerability in the workplace

Leading with an open heart: The power and peril of vulnerability in the workplace

Imagine a CEO standing before their team, not to boast about a recent win, but to confess a misstep that led to a costly mistake. Or picture a manager openly sharing a personal struggle that ultimately shaped their leadership style. Does this sound weak? Unprofessional? Surprisingly, the opposite might be true. Vulnerability, the act of opening yourself up emotionally, can be a powerful tool for leaders to build trust, foster innovation, and create a more positive work environment. But just like a double-edged sword, vulnerability requires careful handling.

For decades, leadership has been synonymous with strength, decisiveness, and an unwavering facade. Yet, the landscape is shifting. Today’s workforce craves authenticity and connection. They want leaders who are human, relatable, and unafraid to show their vulnerabilities. This article delves into the power and peril of vulnerability in leadership, offering practical guidance on how to wield it effectively.

Q: “Yet, the landscape is shifting. Today’s workforce craves authenticity and connection. They want leaders who are human, relatable, and unafraid to show their vulnerabilities.”

Let’s discuss the age-old question: is vulnerability a strength or a weakness for leaders? The answer, as with most things in life, is nuanced. While vulnerability can be a double-edged sword with potential pitfalls, when wielded strategically, it can be a powerful tool for building strong teams and fostering positive interpersonal relationships. We can consider the following benefits:

Building trust: When leaders open up, they create space for others to do the same. This fosters trust and transparency, the bedrock of strong team dynamics. A study by Harvard Business School found that leaders who displayed vulnerability were rated as more trustworthy and effective by their teams.

Psychological safety: Vulnerability creates a safe space for honest feedback, diverse perspectives, and a willingness to take calculated risks. This psychological safety is crucial for innovation and allows teams to learn and grow together. Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, champions innovation through active engagement. His frequent travels across Africa to connect with local communities and startups demonstrate vulnerability and foster open communication, leading to solutions that address Africa’s specific needs.

Authenticity and inspiration: Leaders who share their struggles and triumphs inspire others to do the same. Authenticity breeds authenticity, fostering a more genuine and connected work environment. A CEO who shares a story of overcoming a personal setback can inspire their team to persevere during challenging times. Nigerian entrepreneur and philanthropist Tony Elumelu champions young African empowerment. By openly sharing his journey of building a successful banking and investment firm, he inspires aspiring West African entrepreneurs and fosters a thriving entrepreneurial landscape.

While vulnerability boasts significant advantages, there are potential pitfalls to avoid:

Oversharing: There’s a difference between vulnerability and airing your dirty laundry. Leaders need to choose the right moments and audience for their disclosures. Sharing a personal anecdote to illustrate a point is different from unloading personal problems onto your team.

Unprofessionalism: There’s a time and place for vulnerability. Sensitive company information or emotional outbursts have no place in professional settings.

Exploitation: Opening up can be seen as a weakness by insecure leaders or team members. Leaders need to be discerning about who they choose to be vulnerable with and ensure a safe space for open communication.

How can leaders cultivate a culture of vulnerability? Creating a workplace where vulnerability thrives starts at the top. Here’s how leaders can set the stage:

Be the change: Leaders who model vulnerability encourage others to do the same. Share your own experiences, both successes and failures, to normalise openness and emotional intelligence.

Active listening: Create a space where team members feel heard and understood. Practise active listening and encourage open communication, both positive and negative.

Celebrate authenticity: Recognize and reward team members who demonstrate vulnerability and speak their truth. Celebrate honest feedback and diverse perspectives.

Focus on growth: Frame vulnerability as a learning tool. When mistakes are made, use them as opportunities to learn and grow together as a team.

What about leaders who find it difficult to be vulnerable? The good news! Vulnerability is a skill that can be cultivated. Here are some tips to practice:

Start small: Before opening up in front of large groups, practice vulnerability in safe spaces with trusted colleagues or mentors.

Focus on the “Why”: When considering opening up, ask yourself why. Is it to foster trust, inspire others, or simply vent? Having a clear purpose will guide your vulnerability.

Practice self-awareness: Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses will help you determine what’s appropriate to share and in what context.

The takeaway I want you to have from reading this article is that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength, emotional intelligence, and a willingness to connect with others on a deeper level. By strategically using vulnerability, leaders can build stronger relationships, create a more engaged workforce, and ultimately achieve greater success.

So, here is the call to action. Reflect on your own comfort level with vulnerability. Start small and experiment with opening up in safe settings. Encourage open communication with your team and foster a workplace where vulnerability is valued as a strength, not a weakness. Together, let’s create a world of leadership driven by authenticity, connection, and a willingness to lead with an open heart.

Dr Toye Sobande is a strategic leadership expert, lawyer, public speaker, and trainer. He is the CEO of Stephens Leadership Consultancy LLC, a strategy and management consulting firm offering creative insight and solutions to businesses and leaders. Email: [email protected]