Recently, I found myself in a high-pressure leadership situation, and I failed. Surrounded by some of the most senior global leaders at Salesforce in a role-play learning scenario, I didn’t follow my instinct and delivered a poor performance which had negative consequences for the group I was working with. It was a moment of incredible vulnerability as a leader.
Instead of letting this moment wear me down, I used it as a tool for growth. Upon returning to my local team, I had the courage to share my failings with the team. In doing so – by sharing the experience and reflecting upon it - I walked away with clarity. That is, I should always trust who I am as a leader, I should listen to my instincts, and I should always be authentic.
This is just one very recent example of how vulnerability has helped me grow as a leader. Another example – which I’m sure other leaders will have encountered – is when, on more than one occasion, I have interviewed successfully for a role that would see the role’s predecessor report to me.
That person has every right to feel resentment, humiliation or shame. It’s my job, as their new leader, to help them overcome these feelings. And this is where vulnerability becomes a real asset. By being transparent and open about the difficult circumstances and by making it clear that they remain a very valuable and important part of the team, that individual is more likely to stay and continue to add value to the team.
Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness
Before diving too deep into a discussion about vulnerability in leadership, we need to clear up a common misconception. Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness; it is not the antithesis to strength.
Rather, vulnerability is a sign of courage. It is the ability to let your guard down and embrace the ideas of others; it is the ability to listen and to be authentic. Importantly, it is the ability to admit your weaknesses and ask for help. Leaders do not have all the answers, all of the time. No-one does.
At a fast-growing company like Salesforce, these traits are extremely valuable. Once a quarter, I bring together the combined skills, diverse perspectives and experiences of my leadership team to refine how we operate so we can continue to deliver the best outcomes for the business. I couldn’t make these decisions alone. Many great ideas come from these sessions, and my role as leader is to listen, support and empower the team to try things out. We figure out the best way together.
Of course, showing vulnerability can be hard. There is an element of uncertainty and risk, as you are exposing yourself emotionally and opening yourself up to be judged by others. It demands the suppression of ego, as you support those around you to kick goals instead of kicking them yourself. For many leaders, this can be difficult.
It can be even harder for those women (and, please note, I am not one of them) who believe in the school of thought that women need to behave more like men to get to the top. Actually, I believe that women are ahead when it comes to embracing vulnerability in leadership. Many of the stereotypical attributes of being female align beautifully with the attributes of vulnerability in leadership. Collaboration is the first of these attributes. Self-awareness is another; as is nurturing others in their careers and being open to failure.
All leaders, regardless of gender, have the opportunity to become better leaders by believing in themselves and not being afraid to speak up when it counts.