Authentic Leaders Bring Their Vulnerabilities to Light

Heneka Watkis-Porter

03 September 2019

“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,” writes researcher and storyteller Brené Brown in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection

As a leader, I firmly believe authenticity cannot exist without vulnerability. There is no such thing as a perfect leader, but many of us hesitate to expose our imperfections—to vulnerably show our teams our true selves, warts and all. When we are vulnerable, we put ourselves on the line and risk getting hurt by others. Many of us are afraid of connecting with people on a deeper level because, at this level, our true selves are revealed. 

But here’s the truth: We were created to connect and form strong relationships with others. The benefits far outweigh any risk we could ever face. By sharing our vulnerabilities, we automatically give others permission to do the same. As I write this, I’m reminded of a line from Marianne Williamson’s book, A Return to Love, in which she writes, ”When we let our lights shine, we automatically give others permission to do the same.”

Part of the challenge that comes with being vulnerable is we become fearful we will be called out in an area where we don’t shine as brightly as we would like. Subsequently, the very strong negative emotion of shame gets woven into the web of harboring feelings of inadequacy. Don’t allow the feeling of shame hold you back from being vulnerable. As Brené puts it in her book, Braving the Wilderness, “The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it's our most accurate measure of courage.”

As organizational structures become flat, the hierarchical barriers that once separated team members from leaders are fast becoming extinct. This helps to foster a closer relationship among everyone as the chain of command gets shorter and results in individuals who are more trusting of each other as they work closely together.

Vulnerability is a path to trust.

Team members can be suspicious of their leaders until it is proven there is no need to be. The quickest way for this to happen is to be honest and authentic in your leadership. As a leader, it is OK to let your team know about some of your personal struggles. Start with something small. Talking about your challenges will remind your team that you are human and not some machine set to autopilot. 

Additionally, to be vulnerable is to think less about competition and more about connection. Leadership is about building relationships. When you are connected with your team, you are not seen as a dictator but rather a visionary. This puts you in a better position to impact those within your sphere of influence. 

Notably, too, vulnerability leads to empathy. This is a necessary ingredient if your goal is to stir those you lead to relate to you better. The ‘perfect leader’ myth erodes when you let those you lead see your shortcomings. 

There are times on your leadership journey when you will be unsure of the next move to make. When this happens, be strong enough to step back and let others on your team lead in their strengths. Really, this should be the case at all times while you are leading; always give others an opportunity to shine where they are strongest. It communicates the message that you are a secure leader who doesn’t feel threatened by those around you.

I don’t want to oversimplify vulnerability as a trait of leadership. It takes time, lots of hard work and intentional decision-making for us to truly become comfortable at this. For many of us, it doesn’t come naturally. Our brains are committed to protecting us from the stigma that is associated with revealing our true selves. With practice, though, we can become masterfully vulnerable leaders.

What is your strategy for leading with vulnerability? Share it with us on Twitter.

Heneka Watkis-Porter

Heneka Watkis-Porter is an entrepreneur, author, speaker and host of The Entrepreneurial You podcast. She is founder and CEO of Patwa Culcha International, which owns the authentic Jamaica clothing brand, Patwa Apparel. Heneka is also the creator of the Caribbean’s first virtual conference and expo: The Entrepreneurial You Virtual SME Conference & Expo and Host Site leader for Leadercast Women.

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