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Why vulnerable leaders are the best at building trust

Becs Knill, co-founder and managing partner, Roots Transformation


"Trust is the highest form of human motivation” - Stephen R. Covey

A decade ago, advocating vulnerability as a leadership strength might have seemed absurd, yet increasingly it’s a talking point, and with good reason. As my colleague, Roz, highlighted in her recent piece ‘How to build high performing leadership teams’, she talked about vulnerability-based trust being the foundation stone. In simple terms, the best leadership teams are those in which all members trust one another to be vulnerable. There’s a growing understanding of the role vulnerability plays in creating trust and little doubt that the best leaders foster trust in their teams. So, it’s logical to assume that the two are inextricably linked.


Here are some pretty convincing reasons why:


It fosters strong connections


We can probably all recall a time when we were led by someone who wasn’t quite ‘real’ – who constantly projected an image of competency and authority and never admitted to having doubts or weaknesses. And I’m willing to bet that none of us felt a strong, personal connection to that leader!


Conversely, when leaders are authentic and are prepared to show their vulnerability (when appropriate), rather than revealing only what they think will impress others, they create much deeper connections with the individuals in their teams. This inspires openness and trust. And, when people feel connected to you as their leader, they will feel more secure, be more productive and engage in healthy risk-taking more readily.


It positively impacts team engagement


As leaders, we can easily fall into the trap of thinking we have to be super-human; never letting our weaknesses show or admitting that we don’t have all the answers. But if we buy into this notion, we can appear aloof and unapproachable; giving our teams the message that they should be superhuman too.


Patrick Lencioni advocates leaders being ‘emotionally buck naked’ by admitting when they don’t have the answer or make a mistake because it allows others to share their skills and to display their weaknesses without fear of reproach. The result: people are more emotionally connected to, and engaged with, their team and their work.


It allows us to ask for help


Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Peter Bregman of Bregman Partners asserts that it is only from a place of humanness [showing vulnerability] that we can ask for help, and that asking for help is an essential part of being a leader: “Leaders who don’t need help have no one to lead” , he says.


For teams and businesses to thrive, it’s important to have ‘all hands on deck’, with every individual making their contribution. Leaders who ask for help encourage their teams to contribute fully and enable every individual to be part of the solution. It really is a win-win situation.


It encourages creativity and innovation


Many of the human beings I admire most in the world are not afraid to be vulnerable. Among them is human connection expert, researcher and best-selling author, Brené Brown. In her brilliant 2011 TED Talk - ‘The power of vulnerability’ - Brown stated: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”. She explains the link between vulnerability and creativity in terms of her own definition of the former as ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure’ and says that creativity also “equals all those things”.


Leaders who admit that they don’t have all the answers and sometimes make mistakes not only encourage others to be vulnerable, but they give their teams the freedom to put forward their own ideas and input for consideration, without being held back by the fear of ‘getting it wrong’. This encourages innovation, inspires creativity and results in an increased flow of ideas.


It creates a healthy and vibrant working environment


When leaders are authentic and prepared to be vulnerable, it percolates through the organisation and, for all the reasons stated above, helps to create a vibrant and healthy working environment. If the individuals in a team or wider organisation feel connected to one another, are able to create and innovate in the knowledge that they can fail safely, and know they can make a full contribution and be part of the solution, the mood is elevated and everyone can take pleasure in a fun and vibrant workplace. In this environment, people thrive on the energy, positivity and good communication that’s been created. Overall, there is a culture of trust; the cornerstone for building cohesive teams and healthy organisations.


Vulnerability - a leadership strength


So, trust and vulnerability really do go hand-in-hand and the ability to show vulnerability should be considered a leadership strength. Teams trust their leaders - and one another - most when everyone can be their authentic selves, which includes the ability to show their vulnerability. As US educator and author, Stephen R. Covey, said: “Trust is the highest form of human motivation”. Teams that have a high level of vulnerability-based trust tend to be motivated, connected, innovative and highly engaged.


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