Confident Vulnerability: Three Ways For Leaders to Inspire Others

Illustration Credit: CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Dan Cable for Forbes magazine. To read the complete article, check out other resources, and obtain information about special discounts, please click here.

* * *

Picture a leader and who do you see? Someone motivational? The smartest person in the room? Someone with a transformational vision and the ability to inspire others to implement it? Or someone authoritative and decisive who has all the answers? There are many types of leader, but the historical stereotype has tended to focus on the strong, confident and capable leader – the ‘natural born leader’ who projects strength is a breed apart from others. But is it realistic or even helpful for leaders to be viewed in this way? Can others really draw inspiration from people who appear to be devoid of any kind of weakness? The evidence would seem to point to the contrary.

My research into leadership mindset and employee engagement over the course of many years has shown me that it is far more helpful for leaders to show ‘‘confident vulnerability’’ than it is for them to appear out of reach. But being vulnerable isn’t easy. It takes courage to show imperfection and to be open about mistakes and failures. But for those leaders able to do so, the rewards far outweigh the downsides, as recent history has shown us.

The Covid-19 pandemic was one of those rare times in human history when leaders of all types had vulnerability thrust upon them. No-one knew what had been unleashed upon the world, how to deal with it or how long it would last. Having to admit to being uncertain, to not having all the answers, and being forced into situations of trial and error, made leaders in general seem far more human and less arrogant. It made them vulnerable, but also made them seem much more relatable and approachable.

Confident vulnerability

If leaders are able to show that they too have faced challenges, have failed in attempts to overcome them and come through the other side, their teams are far more likely to be willing to try new things and risk potential failure in the pursuit of success themselves. It is only through trying and failing that people can learn and evolve. Just look at Thomas Edison, who reportedly made almost 3,000 unsuccessful attempts to make the electric lightbulb before he achieved success. Creating a culture where employees feel safe to experiment and learn is key to growth, which is why being able to show ‘‘confident vulnerability’’ can be a business enabler.

I believe that there are three main ways for leaders to show ‘‘confident vulnerability’’: through language; by sharing details of their own developmental journeys, and by showing moral humility.

[Here are the first two.]

The language of learning

It is normal and human to learn and make mistakes. Nobody learns to talk without speaking a bit of gobbledygook along the way just as nobody learns to run before they can walk. By using language like “The brain is a muscle that gets stronger with practice”, leaders can remind those around them that learning comes with practice and help to build an environment in which people feel comfortable to try new things.

During Covid lockdowns, I like many others had to learn how to do my job in a new way. Instead of standing in a lecture room talking to a class full of people, I had to teach to a camera instead. At first, I found it extremely uncomfortable. Instead of being able to engage with people using normal social interaction cues to guide me, I felt awkward and unnatural. My mouth went dry and I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands. It was easy for me to view this as failing, but in fact I was learning how to do something that I had no previous experience of. It is easy to view learning as failure if things aren’t going perfectly, which is why it is important to normalise learning through the language that we use.

The power of disclosure

Sharing stories about their personal route to leadership is another way for leaders to create psychological safety for those around them. When leaders talk about times in their lives when things didn’t go their way, when they tripped up but got the constructive feedback they needed to develop, they show that they are open to learning and not threatened by feedback. By sharing crucible moments and demonstrating that there were times in their careers when they too had to adapt and learn, leaders can normalise vulnerability and learning, opening the door for others to do the same.

A longitudinal field experiment carried out by Constantinos Coutifaris and Adam Grant in 2022 showed that when leaders were randomly assigned to share vulnerable feedback, team psychological safety increased and this effect was felt one year later. Despite some employees being initially surprised and uncomfortable and some leaders feeling anxious about potentially undermining employees’ perception of their competence and confidence, the very fact that sharing vulnerable learning moments is difficult is what made the experiment work.

As one leader said: “I was a little nervous about sharing development areas…This reinforced all of my insecurities that I have had over my career…I have always had impostor syndrome. I do not feel good enough.” The sharing of past learning stories, however, did not jeopardise the reputations of the leaders as effective and competent. Indeed, both leaders and employees in the study came to believe that feedback sharing helped to normalise vulnerability and that this was a positive. Leaders sharing their learning moments made employees more comfortable speaking up.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Dan Cable is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School. His research and teaching focus on employee engagement, change, organizational culture, leadership mindset, and the linkage between brands and employee behaviours. He is the author of several books, most recently ‘Exceptional: Build Your Personal Highlight Reel and Unlock Your Potential’.

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.