Leadership vulnerability is a topic occasionally addressed in books and articles, and sometimes addressed in personal conversations. It is not often a topic addressed in leadership development programs. Vulnerability is defined by Wikipedia as the inability (of a system or a unit) to withstand the effects of a hostile environment. I’d like to think that a “system or a unit” could also include a person! A hostile environment can simply be an environment where the person is struggling to cope or facing forces that they find imposing or threatening.
It would be interesting to see this topic as an agenda item in a leadership development program alongside topics such as strategic thinking, emotional intelligence, influencing, etc. Why? My experience as a coach and developer of leaders over the past 20 years has taught me that many leaders need to talk about their vulnerabilities as well as addressing their competencies and behaviors. Some assessment tools provoke these conversations with reference to stallers and stoppers, over-played strengths, or other personality traits and drivers. These sometimes still feel a little “normalized” rather than coming from deep personal reflection or an inner sense of inadequacy – which can sometimes consume leaders.
In some of the most vibrant and progressive organizational cultures, personal coaching situations often provide the context for leaders to talk about their sense of vulnerability, weakness, struggles, and personal dilemmas. These may be related to their roles and responsibilities, and sometimes it might just be a relief to have time to breathe out and speak to someone confidentially about themselves.
I recall one situation where a coaching conversation started with an invitation to the leader to talk about whatever was most pressing for them. “My marriage” was the answer. This leader was facing a real conflict between their work demands and the time away from home that this required. As an executive coach, I haven’t faced this specific scenario on many occasions, but I often have conversations with senior leaders about personal challenges that they would otherwise be reluctant to talk about with anyone in their organization.
How many leaders are faced with insurmountable pressures, unreasonable work/life balance, health challenges, or domestic issues influenced by work? How many leaders are a breath away from depression, burn out, or just being desperately miserable? How many leaders feel the pressure to perform and keep giving their lives to a job without deep reflection on their personal happiness?
At this stage I do want to recognize that there are many leaders who have a clear grasp on their personal fulfilment and are very balanced in their roles, personal lives, and sense of purpose. Leaders who have personal challenges and vulnerabilities are not lesser leaders or weak leaders, they are still leaders. Leaders who haven’t confronted a moment of vulnerability shouldn’t look down on those who have – life has a habit of turning tables!
Confronting a vulnerable situation can be the beginning of a better tomorrow. Whether it is a sense of personal inadequacy, a mismatch with corporate culture, a clash with leadership, a desire to redirect a career, or any other hostile influence, leaders are better when they can talk it out. A “hostile influence” doesn’t need to be a game-changer, it can just be a moment to confront situations that don’t feel fair, balanced, or positive. I have had frequent coaching conversations where leaders achieve personal breakthroughs after they have spilled their guts to someone in confidence. We live in a world where the pressure to perform and deliver results often exceeds the care of people. Coaches are not counsellors, but leaders often just need an empathetic human being to talk to. Executive coaches are best positioned to coach others when they have faced similar pressures and are professionally astute at addressing vulnerabilities of leaders in today’s workplaces.
One phrase that should never be used with someone expressing personal vulnerability is “get over it”. I would however like to suggest that we should “get over it” when someone wants to talk about their vulnerabilities …. this is normal, human, and ok! Indeed, it could be said that the most secure and confident leaders are those who gladly admit to vulnerabilities. Honest leaders know they aren’t perfect!