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Embracing Vulnerability: The Secret Weapon of Great Leadership

By Andre J. Wicks, President of Everyday Principal, author of What Is Standing in the Way, Consultant and Leadership Coach, and Principal of Carla O. Peperzak Middle School.

As we make our way through our summer series on personal leadership development, we’ve delved into the realms of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. In this bonus edition, we venture into a territory that might make some of you a little uncomfortable —vulnerability. If self-awareness is the compass and emotional intelligence the map, then vulnerability is the courage to embark on the journey.

In leadership, vulnerability is often misunderstood. Many see it as a sign of weakness, something to be hidden or avoided. However, as we’ll explore, vulnerability is a powerful strength that fosters trust, deepens relationships, and enhances your authenticity as a leader. So, buckle up as we dive into the heart of what it means to lead with vulnerability.

The Paradox of Vulnerability

Let us start with a story. Picture this: You’re a school principal, facing a room full of skeptical teachers at the beginning of a new school year. The air is thick with apprehension as you prepare to present a bold new initiative. Your instinct might be to project unwavering confidence, to mask any uncertainty you feel. But what if you took a different approach? What if you started by acknowledging the challenges ahead and admitting that you, too, have questions and concerns?

Brené Brown, a leading researcher on vulnerability, describes this paradox beautifully. In her book Daring Greatly, she explains that while we often view vulnerability in ourselves as weakness, we see it as courage in others. When leaders open up about their own struggles and uncertainties, it doesn’t diminish their authority; it humanizes them and strengthens their connection with others.

Why Vulnerability Matters in Leadership

Building Trust

Trust is the cornerstone of any successful school environment. Without it, communication breaks down, collaboration falters, and progress grinds to a halt. Vulnerability is a key ingredient in building and maintaining trust.

According to Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust, trust is built through authenticity and transparency. When leaders are willing to share their true selves—flaws and all—it signals to others that they can do the same. This openness fosters an environment where people feel safe to express their ideas and concerns, leading to deeper, more genuine relationships.

Practical Application: Next time you’re faced with a challenging decision or a tough conversation, try being honest about your uncertainties. Share your thought process and invite others to contribute their perspectives. This collaborative approach not only builds trust but also leads to more robust and inclusive solutions.

Fostering Innovation and Creativity

In the classroom, we encourage students to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. Yet, in leadership, we often feel the need to have all the answers and avoid any sign of imperfection. Embracing vulnerability turns this notion on its head.

Amy Edmondson, in her research on psychological safety, found that teams with leaders who model vulnerability and openness are more innovative and effective. When leaders admit they don’t have all the answers and welcome input from others, it creates a culture where experimentation and learning from failure are valued. This openness is crucial for fostering creativity and driving progress in schools.

Practical Application: Create opportunities for your team to brainstorm and experiment without fear of failure. Encourage them to share their ideas, no matter how out-of-the-box and celebrate the learning that comes from setbacks. By modeling vulnerability, you set the stage for a more dynamic and innovative school culture.

Enhancing Emotional Connection

Reflecting on our previous discussions about emotional intelligence, we know that empathy and understanding are vital for effective leadership. Vulnerability is the bridge that connects these emotional intelligence skills to real human interactions.

When leaders show vulnerability, they create an emotional connection that goes beyond formal roles and titles. This connection fosters a sense of belonging and community, which is essential for a positive school climate. According to Boyatzis and McKee in Resonant Leadership, emotionally resonant leaders who embrace vulnerability can create deep, lasting bonds with their teams.

Practical Application: Share your personal stories and experiences with your team. Whether it is a challenge you’ve overcome or a lesson you have learned, these narratives can create powerful connections and inspire others to open up as well. Remember, it is not about having a perfect story but about being real and relatable.

Overcoming the Fear of Vulnerability

Despite its benefits, vulnerability can be daunting. The fear of judgment, rejection, or appearing weak often holds leaders back from embracing their true selves. Here are some strategies to help you overcome these fears and harness the power of vulnerability.

Redefine Strength

Many of us grew up with the idea that strength means never showing weakness or doubt. It is time to flip that script. Real strength lies in the courage to be honest and authentic, even when it is uncomfortable. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown reminds us that vulnerability is not about winning or losing but about having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome. By redefining strength in this way, we can start to see vulnerability not as a liability but as a vital aspect of true leadership.

Practical Application: Challenge your own perceptions of strength and weakness. Reflect on moments when you’ve seen others show vulnerability and how it impacted your view of them. Use these reflections to reframe your own experiences with vulnerability as acts of courage rather than weakness.

Start Small

Embracing vulnerability doesn’t mean baring your soul in every meeting. Start with small, manageable steps that feel authentic to you. Maybe it is admitting you need help with a task or sharing a personal insight during a team discussion.

Practical Application: Identify a few areas where you can start to practice vulnerability in your leadership. This might include sharing a personal story, asking for feedback, or acknowledging a mistake. Gradually, these small acts will build your confidence and comfort with being open and genuine.

Create a Safe Environment

As a leader, you play a crucial role in creating a culture where vulnerability is accepted and encouraged. This starts with setting the tone and leading by example but also involves actively fostering an environment of psychological safety.

Practical Application: Encourage open dialogue and make it clear that all voices are valued and respected. When team members share their ideas or admit mistakes, respond with empathy and support. Your reaction will set the tone for how others feel about being vulnerable in the future.

Embracing Vulnerability: The Heart of Authentic Leadership

At its core, vulnerability is about authenticity. It is about showing up as your true self, with all your strengths and imperfections, and inviting others to do the same. This authenticity is the bedrock of effective leadership.

In True North, Bill George emphasizes that authentic leaders are those who stay true to their values and principles, even in the face of adversity. They don’t hide behind a façade of invincibility but instead lead with openness and integrity. This kind of leadership inspires trust, loyalty, and engagement.

Practical Application: Reflect on your core values and how they align with your leadership practices. Are there areas where you can be more authentic and true to yourself? Consider how you can align your actions with your values to lead more authentically and effectively.

After You've Tried Those, Try These

Having explored why vulnerability matters and how it can enhance your leadership, let us delve into some other ways you can try embracing vulnerability in your daily leadership practice.

Share Your Journey

Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you need to expose every detail of your life, but sharing aspects of your journey can create powerful connections. Whether it is a challenge you’ve faced or a lesson you’ve learned, your story can be a source of inspiration and relatability for others.

It Looks Like This: During your next team meeting, consider sharing a personal anecdote that highlights a moment of growth or learning. This could be a story about a past mistake and what it taught you, or a time when you felt uncertain and how you navigated through it. Your willingness to be open can encourage others to share their own stories and create a culture of mutual support and learning.

Admit When You Don’t Know

As leaders, we often feel the pressure to have all the answers. However, acknowledging when you don’t know something can be incredibly powerful. It shows that you’re human and opens the door for collaboration and collective problem-solving.

It Sounds Like This: The next time you’re asked a question or faced with a situation where you’re unsure, resist the urge to fake confidence. Instead, say something like, “I’m not sure, but I’d love to explore this together.” This approach not only builds trust but also leverages the collective wisdom of your team.

Seek and Give Constructive Feedback

Feedback is a crucial component of growth, but it can be intimidating to both give and receive. Being vulnerable means being open to hearing how you can improve and being willing to offer others the same opportunity for growth.

It Feels Like This: Create regular opportunities for feedback in your team. This could be through one-on-one check-ins, anonymous surveys, or open discussions. When receiving feedback, listen with an open mind and heart, and when giving feedback, do so with empathy and respect. This two-way street of vulnerability fosters an environment of continuous improvement and mutual support.

Foster a Culture of Openness

As a leader, your actions set the tone for your school’s culture. By consistently practicing vulnerability, you encourage others to do the same, creating a safe space for openness and authenticity.

It Looks Like This: Lead by example and encourage your team to share their ideas, concerns, and experiences. When someone takes a risk or opens up, acknowledge their courage and respond with empathy. Celebrate efforts and learnings, even when they come from failures. This positive reinforcement can help build a culture where everyone feels comfortable being their true selves.

Reflect and Adapt

Embracing vulnerability is a continuous journey. It requires regular reflection and a willingness to adapt as you grow. Take time to reflect on your experiences and consider how you can further integrate vulnerability into your leadership style.

It Looks Like This: Set aside time each week for self-reflection. Consider journaling about moments when you felt vulnerable and what you learned from them. Reflect on how these experiences have impacted your leadership and identify areas where you can continue to grow. This practice of reflection and adaptation will help you stay aligned with your values and deepen your authenticity.

Embracing Vulnerability in Action: A Case Study

Take a look at this real-life example of vulnerability in leadership. Consider the story of Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford Motor Company. When he took over the company in 2006, Ford was on the brink of bankruptcy. Instead of presenting a façade of control and certainty, Mulally openly shared the company’s dire situation and his own uncertainties. He fostered a culture of openness where team members felt safe to speak up and share the truth about their challenges. This transparency and vulnerability not only built trust but also empowered the team to work together to turn the company around.

Mulally’s leadership exemplifies how embracing vulnerability can lead to profound positive changes. By being open and authentic, he transformed Ford’s culture and led the company to a remarkable recovery. His story is a powerful reminder that vulnerability, far from being a weakness, is a formidable strength in leadership.

Final Thoughts: The Courage to Lead with Vulnerability

Embracing vulnerability is not about seeking approval or exposing every detail of your life. It is about having the courage to be real and authentic, even when it is uncomfortable. It is about showing up as your true self and inviting others to do the same. As leaders in education, your willingness to embrace vulnerability can profoundly impact your school community. Vulnerability fosters trust, encourages innovation, and deepens connections. It humanizes you in the eyes of your students, teachers, and staff, creating an environment where everyone feels valued and empowered to contribute their best.

As we continue our process of personal leadership development, I challenge you to take a step towards embracing vulnerability. Start with small acts of openness and build towards a leadership style that is grounded in authenticity and courage. Remember, vulnerability is not about being perfect; it is about being real. And in that realness lies your greatest strength as a leader.

Making the Connection

Authenticity is closely intertwined with vulnerability, as it involves being true to yourself and your values. You can cultivate an authentic leadership style that resonates with your team and aligns with your core beliefs.

Call to Action

As we wrap up this discussion on vulnerability, I invite you to reflect on how you can start embracing vulnerability in your own leadership. What small steps can you take to be more open and authentic? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below or start a group discussion in the member's area. Together, we can create a network of leaders who lead with heart and courage.


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5 üzerinden 5 yıldız

I think vulnerability is a missing piece in leadership. For the most part, I think that is true because it's just not a default position for most people to be in, leader or not. As a leader, I've always strived to be real, as it were. And that has included vulnerability and wearing my emotions on my sleeve. I do not shy away from either. I think it is very important to show it as a leader. It was huge for me in leading my school through COVID.


5 üzerinden 5 yıldız

I am really enjoying this professional learning! I am growing and will be a better leader in August! Thank you for sharing!

Şu kişiye cevap veriliyor:

Valerie, that is great to know! Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. The feedback is so valuable. The best has yet to come in this series!



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