Leaders must be brave, and they must consistently demonstrate courage.

Courage is necessary to leadership whether you’re leading combat troops, accountants, or any other type of team.

But that’s not the same thing as leaders taking a “tough guy” approach. Granted, there will be times when leaders are called upon to stand firm in the face of skepticism or opposition, but those times are rarer than most people believe.

The fact is, you can go quite far in leadership with the “tough guy” approach, but eventually, that approach causes leadership to stall out or plateau. What’s the key to leveling up? Vulnerability. That may not make sense to some people, but my experience and the research of others has shown that it’s absolutely true.

In my new book The Intelligent Leader, I devote an entire chapter to what I call the “vulnerability decision.” In fact, I believe that genuine change is not possible without vulnerability. Regrettably, many leadership development programs dismiss or ignore the concept of vulnerability. Here’s why it’s so important.

Vulnerability and Weakness are Not the Same Thing

People conflate vulnerability and weakness, and that’s too bad. The tough guy approach to leadership may in fact paper over weaknesses rather than address them. The tough, hardened leader says, “I know everything. Therefore, I’m right,” while the vulnerable leader says, “I’m learning, and I want to get this right.”

Vulnerability isn’t about cowering in the face of difficulty, but about being open to perspectives other than one’s own. It’s about learning from others – even if those “others” are junior employees. Vulnerability is where connections with others are created, and connections are what builds trust. Additionally, creativity and authenticity spring from the fertile soil of vulnerability. Trust, creativity, and authenticity: it would be hard to identify three qualities more foundational to leadership and strong teams.

Vulnerability is a Key Component of Courage

Vulnerability implies risk, and so does courage. How courageous does one have to be if there’s no risk? Because vulnerability and courage are linked with risk, courage and vulnerability go together. And courage is linked to ethical behavior as well as the empowerment of followers. Courage is “contagious” when it comes from a place of vulnerability and authenticity.

Asking for and listening to feedback is an outstanding and constructive way to embrace vulnerability.

Honest self-reflection, asking for (and listening to) feedback, empowering others, and trusting your team to get the job done are all positive manifestations of vulnerability. Embracing vulnerability makes you a better leader because it more closely interconnects you with your team.

One Potential Pitfall to Embracing Vulnerability

There is a risk of embracing vulnerability that I have encountered with some of my leadership coaching clients, and that is embracing vulnerability too tightly. Sometimes people will make the choice to be vulnerable and completely forget about all the great qualities that got them to where they are.

When you make the decision to be vulnerable, don’t throw the “baby” of confidence out with the “bathwater” of the hardened, always-right approach. You’re a leader for a reason, so don’t fixate on your flaws. Recognizing that you have flaws and demonstrating the self-awareness of knowing you have flaws allows you to be vulnerable without losing faith in yourself. It also humanizes you to your team members and ultimately strengthens trust and team cohesiveness.

For too long, vulnerability has been a bad word in the world of leadership. In my opinion, the vulnerability decision is the most important dimension of an intelligent leader. Leadership dimensions like thinking big and thinking differently are exciting concepts that have more sizzle, but vulnerability is where genuine change and improvement happen.

I also want to share that in my leadership coaching experience, I have encountered many leaders who fail to embrace vulnerability until very late in their career. Steve Jobs of Apple was an example. By the time we worked together, he understood that had he embraced vulnerability earlier, perhaps he could have avoided some very costly personal and professional mistakes. There is no time better than right now to make the vulnerability decision, regardless of your age, experience, or job title.

In my new book The Intelligent Leader, which launches in October, I go into much greater detail about the vulnerability decision as well as the other six dimensions of Intelligent Leadership. I hope you’ll check out The Intelligent Leader and get ready to ignite your inner core, grow your leadership, and enrich your professional and personal life.


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