Courageous leadership requires us to be vulnerable

Organisations need courageous leaders now more than ever – and courage is about acting despite the fear, says Anne Taylor

In March this year, an executive coaching client of mine made the decision for his organisation to work from home due to coronavirus. He did this before his corporate head office, before his country and before most other countries (as he’s Asia based). He demonstrated courage; the ability to move forward in the face of risk, opposition, criticism, danger and fear. Courage is about acting despite the fear.

Courage over self- doubt

In terms of the office work environment few of us face real physical danger. Our courage is required less for dangerous situations and more for facing opposition, risk or fear of being judged. In fact, most people’s biggest fear is being judged (by others as well as ourselves). identified the five biggest fears bosses face every day and they all trace to judgement1:

  1. Imposter syndrome, which is the fear of being found to be incompetent (this is the #1 fear among CEOs)
  2. Looking stupid
  3. Appearing vulnerable
  4. Political attacks
  5. Underachieving

Courage or bravery is necessary at all levels of an organisation. This is particularly true now, with all the uncertainty and fear. What worked yesterday might not work today and, even if it does, there may be a better way of working. Organisations need to innovate, which requires risk and potential failure. And let’s face it, organisations themselves can’t take risks; it’s the people within those organisations that must innovate, take risks; in other words, be courageous.

Courage in business

There are two areas for applying courage in business:

  1. Vocationally: The courage to do things differently, to have different solutions. This is about the work itself, changing a manufacturing or IT system, changing a process, using social media and paid product placement rather than traditional 30-second TV adverts. These changes feel less risky, easier to take, requiring less personal courage.
  2. Personally: The courage to be different, to stand out, to go against the norm, to expose one’s self. This is the courage to ask the ‘stupid’ question, to oppose the status quo, to put your head above the parapet about a decision or defined direction. This feels scary and risky, with huge repercussions to the individual.

There is a light side and a dark side to courage, as there is to every quality. The light side is powerful, brave, expanding, and the dark side is reckless, cavalier, and fool-hearted. The courage I’m espousing here is from the light side to increase your effectiveness, fulfil your potential and grow yourself on this journey.

Vulnerability for connection and authenticity

Vulnerability is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally’. At first glance this doesn’t appear to be congruent with leadership and yet it is the basis for soft skills, emotional intelligence and authentic leadership.

No discussion of courage and vulnerability would be complete without homage to lecturer, author and podcast host Brené Brown. She says that vulnerability is at the core or heart of meaningful human experiences. She has based this on her years of research as a Professor at the University of Houston and has shared it in her many talks and bestselling books, Daring greatly and Dare to Lead being my two favourites.

Leadership is about human connection, having engaged teams to deliver the results. To have meaningful connection vulnerability is key. Brown found that the block to being vulnerable was shame – the fear of not being worthy. Shame is about us feeling like we are a bad person, unworthy, flawed at our core. It can be confused with embarrassment or humiliation and yet it’s not the same. Shame results from an individual reacting at an ‘identity level’ to negative feedback or what Brown calls ‘self-talk’: ‘How we experience these emotions comes down to self-talk. How we talk to ourselves about what’s happening.’

Shame self-talk is: I’m an awful person. I’m not worthy’.

Vulnerability versus weakness

Vulnerability is about exposing yourself, risking sharing something about yourself that might threaten your position or status. In business this can be voicing a dissenting opinion in a meeting. You expose yourself to everyone in attendance, and the potential gossip beyond. Vulnerability is very different from being weak. Weakness is about lacking power to perform or having a flaw or limitation. Academics Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, in their book Who should be led by you?, talk of allowable weaknesses as a means of showing vulnerability or authenticity. A CEO could have an allowable weakness of public speaking which he’s being supported to improve by a communication coach. However, he couldn’t admit to ‘not being good with numbers’. He can show a vulnerability to being self-conscious when giving a presentation.

He can’t show a fundamental deficit in doing his job. The former is revealing something about yourself that’s personal or intimate whereas the latter is a comment about a shortcoming in your ability.

Vulnerability requires trust of others and yourself. You need to trust the person with whom you are being vulnerable. You need to trust yourself that you have the courage to do it and can handle whatever happens following your revelation. Take baby steps – share something of relatively low risk with someone with whom you have high trust.

Courage and vulnerability: two sides of the same coin

Courage and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin because you can’t be vulnerable without being courageous and vice versa. It takes courage to risk being vulnerable, to reveal aspects of yourself that you’ve kept hidden/private or that might open you up to judgement or criticism or ridicule.

I hope you’re seeing that vulnerability is anything but weak.

It’s not about being vulnerable for vulnerability’s sake. It’s not about being vulnerable to manipulate someone. I’m suggesting that by being open to your vulnerability you can create greater connection with others, your stakeholders, at work and beyond. It’s also about being yourself and feeling that you can show up fully at work, especially since we spend more of our waking hours at work than we do with friends and family. It’s about creating an environment where others can be vulnerable too, with you role-modelling and creating that safe place. It’s about creating a place where people can be courageous to dare, to risk exploring so that organisations innovate, create and make the best decisions. You’re the leader and the one reading this, so you need to demonstrate living the two sides of the coin.

Where do you need to be courageous and risk being vulnerable to improve your effectiveness?

Anne Taylor is an Executive Coach & Author, helping successful, results-driven leaders improve their people skills to be more effective and satisfied. Her website offers a range of materials, a sign-up for a complimentary session and a download of the first chapter of her book, Soft Skills Hard Results.

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