Think about it, if you could choose one superpower, what would it be? Would it be empathy? Is it eloquence? Or kindness? Is it equality? Perhaps excellent communication skills? Is it the power of priority and focus? Maybe it is building and growing trust? Is it building self-reliant teams? Is it creating more leaders? Or is it the power of coaching? Yes, all these are the important qualities that make a top-notch leader. Yet, there is something missing. Something we often ignore or shun away from.
Imagine what would you do if your boss suddenly walks up to you and tells you that they have to let you go because the company can no longer pay your salary. It happened when Hubbl founder, Archana Patchirajan, broke this news to her entire staff. She could no longer pay them. Surprisingly, none of her staff left. Instead, they insisted to stick with Patchirajan and decided to take a 50% pay cut. A few years later, Hubbl was acquired by Airpush for about $15 million. When HBR’s Emma Seppälä interviewed one of Patchirajan’s longest-standing employees, it revealed this characteristic trait. A good exit for Hubbl, but the journey wasn’t all that easy.
Like Archana Patchirajan, many excellent leaders recognize this quality as a powerful tool and use it as a superpower.
They are vulnerable
Many high achievers I coach tend to be nervous about this approach. Inside their heads, they think that they need to have the smarts and knowledge to help solve just about any situation. They fear that if they come across as looking like they don’t know what they’re doing, chances are that they will appear stupid and weak.
I don’t blame them. Leadership is all about establishing visions, identifying issues faster, and creating space for greater innovations. Amidst all of this, vulnerability can be seen as a weakness and a crutch. For leaders, especially, it can be a liability. The media heavily portrays vulnerability as a threat. Involuntarily, we learn to portray an image of confidence, competence, and authority at all times.
One of the biggest barriers to effective leadership is a simple fear of sharing what you are really thinking and feeling. The aftermath of which could often mean rejection, ridicule, judgment, or even loss of power. Traditionally, we equate vulnerability with failing. Rather, vulnerability is a massively underused superpower. Research has shown that expressing vulnerability and asking for help is a strong signal to others that you are trusting, and you’re more likely to be trusted in return. Embracing vulnerability shows inner strength, greater self-awareness, and a deep sense of integrity.
Top leaders come from a place of vulnerability and courage. In her book Daring Greatly, author and researcher Brené Brown, dispels the cultural myth that vulnerability is weakness and argues that it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage. She asserts, “When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.” Great leaders, in fact, believe that what makes them vulnerable also makes them unique.
Some of the great examples of vulnerability often come from the sports arena. American gymnast Simone Biles walked away from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics expressing her mental health challenges. In January 2017, going against the country’s intentions, cricketer M. S. Dhoni stepped down as the captain of the national cricket team and handed over the reins to Virat Kohli. In an interview, he said, “I resigned from captaincy because I wanted the new captain to get enough time for preparing a team before the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019.” Another great example can be seen in basketball. In the 1997 NBA finals, Michael Jordan drew the defense and passed to Steve Kerr so he could take the winning shot. In doing so, he put his reputation and game in someone else’s hands. Few leaders have shown this kind of vulnerability.
Remember, vulnerability is a sign of authenticity. It allows you to show people your authentic self and build bonds that lead to deep connections and eventually increased performance. It is by far the most accurate measure of one’s courage. In a business environment that’s cut-throat and too competitive, vulnerability is the most powerful and impactful way to build unity.
Here’s how you can start being vulnerable in a conversation:
- Vulnerability is not full disclosure. You do need to have boundaries.
- Do not communicate vulnerability with the intention of gaining sympathy or an unfavorable position.
- Ask someone for help. Accept support, when offered, with gratitude and humility.
- If you mess up, don’t try to cover it up. Admit your faults.
- Share your struggles to let others see a more personal side of you.
- Trust that you can deal with the outcome – No matter what!
As Simon Sinek once said, “A leader, first and foremost, is a human. Only when we have the strength to show our vulnerability can we truly lead.” Vulnerability is indeed an underused superpower. Step up and start being vulnerable.