Leadership and Vulnerability: What Works? What's TMI?
Updated: Mar 7
Think for just a minute about the people you consider to be great leaders. What about them do you admire? What draws you to them? What makes you want to follow their lead?
I'm guessing your first instinct is to name their strengths, examples of poise under pressure, and how they inspire you. Me too.
You might even refer to great books on leadership like Good to Great by Jim Collins or the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Me too. I'm a leadership book junkie, and I can point to countless leaders and methods of leadership as examples. My library is pretty extensive.
Let's Go Deeper
When I really examine the leadership traits I would consider including in my own leadership style, I realize I'm not attracted to leaders because of their strength. I'm attracted to how they handle their weakness. And more important, how they talk about those seemingly weak moments in their lives.
When I hear how they fell down and then how they picked themselves back up and persevered, I'm paying attention to them as a leader. I'm willing to follow and model my own leadership behaviors after their's when they reveal something about their inner life. By the way, this approach also makes a great TED Talk, and no one does this better than Brené Brown, Ph.D.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.”
At the end of the day, I really don't like to follow the "Knights in Shining Armor." I can't relate my own leadership style to those leaders. The aura of their perfection is actually more repulsive than it is attractive. It makes me think: What are they hiding? What are they not telling everyone? What really goes on behind the scenes? I'm suspicious of the leader who has it all together, leading a seemingly perfect life. That's not real, and it's really hard for me to learn from. They strike me as just showmen and women. Hmmm...Sounds a lot like our some of our public officials (on both sides of the aisle), doesn't it?
When I really get honest and dig into the traits of the leaders whom I want to mimic or follow, I realize it's a combination of humbleness and fierce resolve that works. They show their true selves and even a few warts. And as a result, they don't come across as weak, but rather as courageous. Why? Because they're willing to show what happens behind their curtain, not just what happens on stage in their performance. They're willing to be vulnerable, and in that openness, they find their authenticity. And it's authenticity that's worth following.
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
What's Too Much Information?
As I have contemplated the amount of vulnerability I'm willing to share in the name of leadership, I have feared the dreaded "TMI" – too much information – syndrome. Where can I go too far with my stories of falling down and showing my weaknesses? What is too revealing? What is just downright embarrassing—something my community will laugh at and will challenge their respect for me? When will revealing my inner thoughts and stories of falling down feel like that dream of me giving a speech in my underwear?
What I've learned from Brené Brown, Ph.D. is that it's really much harder to reveal too much than it is too little. We all have a protective measure when we're in uncertain territory. The likelihood we'll cross the line into the zone of TMI is actually pretty slim.
Personally, I've come to a place of comfort with the idea that if what I reveal helps someone else feel less alone or gives someone ideas on how to solve a problem, then no matter how potentially embarrassing, it's worth it to go there. In the last year, I seriously pushed the boundaries of TMI as I revealed the ins and outs of recovering from breast cancer and spinal cord injury. And yet, every time I went there, my audience asked me to tell them more...not less.
Of course, there is a line that can be crossed. As Brené puts it:
"Live-tweeting your bikini wax is not vulnerability. Nor is posting a blow-by-blow of your divorce. That's an attempt to hot-wire connection. But you can't cheat real connection. It's built up slowly. It's about trust and time."
Sure, it's uncomfortable to be revealing and let others in. But, I promise you that your current and future employees will thank you. They will know you better. They will understand your decisions better.
And here's another bonus. When you make your thoughts public, you humanize your company for your customers, prospects, and partners. Your lawyers may not love this advice, but they're paid to tell you "No."
Trust me. There is a happy medium out there—one that isn't totally comfortable but doesn't cross the line. I think you'll be surprised at the reception you get when you put yourself out there. I know I have.
Thoughts to Noodle On
When do you feel vulnerable in your work?
How do you behave when you are feeling vulnerable?
How have you reacted when leaders have shown some vulnerability? Do you trust them more or less?
How can you embrace your willingness to be vulnerable with those you lead?