There’s been a fad in recent years, encouraging us all to be vulnerable. We’re told to use this “gift of vulnerability” as a way of building trust and connection with others as a means of getting others to relate to us.
But, if you want to be an effective entrepreneur, manager, or leader, or build and scale a meaningful enterprise, you should be very cautious about being vulnerable. It can expose you to some risks and to being exploited.
If you’re vulnerable, you can be over-familiar with people, and there’s a danger this could be used against you.
This risk is present whether you’re running your own business or trying to rise up a career ladder. In either setting, your legitimacy and status as a leader could be inadvertently undermined and eroded by those who are willing to exploit your vulnerabilities. They wouldn’t have known these had you not revealed them so openly.
You could be criticized by others on social media or even expose yourself to legal challenges, through having opened up your vulnerabilities too freely. And you need only do it once. Or 10 years ago, and it could rear its ugly head time and time again.
Making big decisions
Attempting to relate to people by being vulnerable can actually make it much harder to come to strong or hard decisions. They perceive you as weak. You make it hard for yourself to now be strong.
People need to believe in you as a leader. They need to be able to respect and even admire you. They need to recognize your resilience, believing that you can overcome challenges and obstacles.
Too much vulnerability shared too openly can make you seem weak and damaged. People lose faith in your ability to lead through challenging and disruptive times, such as those we’re living through right now.
I accept that vulnerability can represent a great way to build trust and connection with customers. To build a social media following and to bond with staff and co-workers. But I’ve learned through bitter experience that sharing vulnerabilities with clients and my staff too openly has reduced my teams’ confidence in me and therefore themselves. And some have used it to manipulate and even blackmail.
When my staff was scared silly for their livelihoods during the first lockdown, we had to make hard decisions to ruthlessly cut overhead costs, let some staff go, and fight to remain in business. My 100-plus strong team wanted to see me as strong and decisive during those times.
If their view of me had been jaded by my vulnerabilities and they’d seen me as anxious and uncertain, they would have felt this too. They were already feeling it, and I was feeling it. so I would have made it worse. I know this to be the case, because fellow board members were looking at me as the most positive and solution-focused board member. When I shared my uncertainties and fears, they panicked even more, because, and I quote: “If Rob is scared then we should all be scared.”
I’m not a fan of the phrase “fake it until you make it,” since no one should have to fake anything. But in this lockdown instance, and through many other challenges, leaders need to present an anti-vulnerable, unbreakable facade, hiding their fears and anxieties, and instead showing a strong and resilient front to others.
Your team needs to perceive you as strong and believe that “you’ve got this.” You want your competitors to think that you are unbreakable.
Be cautious of being exposed and emotional
So while it’s become fashionable to share everything openly about our flaws and fears, be cautious about overexposing vulnerabilities, and be mindful of the consequences.
Also, be careful not to confuse being vulnerable with being emotional. When emotionally triggered, it’s all too easy to share our vulnerabilities in the moment, only to feel significantly better about ourselves in the hours or days that follow once the emotion has subsided. By then, the damage is done. We’ve overshared and we can’t take it back.
There’s a time and a place for vulnerability. You should always ask for help when you need it, and in a balanced emotional state, it’s OK to be honest about your weaknesses in front of trusted and professional people. But too much vulnerability and oversharing reduces your power and limits the respect that others have for you. It can harm your credibility and damage your reputation.
When you’re perceived as weak and vulnerable, others will wobble when you wobble. People will get scared when you’re scared.
A general wouldn’t be telling their troops they have impostor syndrome as they lead them into battle.
There’s a time and a place for vulnerability. It’s asking for the right help from the right people. It’s not about sharing it all over social media or in front of those who look to you for leadership and inspiration. It’s not in 1-2-1 meetings or appraisals, nor is it in leadership talks. It’s definitely not to your competitors or critics.