Take Off the Mask

Authenticity Courage Respect


Key Point: Vulnerability in leadership involves the courage to be real, authentic and self-aware enough to be able check our ego at the door. Easy to say, well researched and documented, and yet a road less travelled by too many of today’s leaders. Why? It’s scary to be vulnerable for many of us. What will people think of us? Will they see us as weak? Will we be taken advantage of? 

As the Chief People Officer of our organization, our CEO and I recently gathered all of the top management team and their direct reports for an entire day. Our purpose was to take another small but important step to advance our leadership capabilities. We believe people have a right to great leaders and leaders have a responsibility to be great (not perfect). This involves getting fierce feedback and help from those we work closely with. Each of our top team leaders were presented with a data pack that outlined the collective feedback, and an assessment of their leadership competence as viewed by their direct reports and boss (the CEO). Each top leader then shared the unvarnished results with his/her entire team. In intimate circles, each of our CEO’s nine direct reports huddled with their direct teams in deep conversation, sharing strengths and shortcomings outlined in the packs. The common phrase from each executive was, “Thank you for your frank insight.” This past week, approximately 30 days later, we checked in with participants regarding the value of that Leadership Day. One common theme: How powerful it was for the top team to be vulnerable, and openly share areas for personal leadership improvement. For most attendees, that was a “wow,” and a great example of courageous leadership. 

According to professors Barry Posner and Jim Kouzes, who arguably have the richest research based insights on leadership on the planet: ”If there’s ever a place for leaders to ‘model the way,’ it’s vulnerability. When leaders aren’t vulnerable, everyone wears a mask. Encourage vulnerability by practicing vulnerability.” Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, once said, “The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability… When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.” And one of my favorite social scientists, Brené Brown, who is an expert on social connection, conducted thousands of interviews to discover that vulnerability lies at the root of social connection. Vulnerability here does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It means replacing “professional distance” and “cool” with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Leadership opportunities through vulnerability present themselves to us at work every day. 

The following five benefits and 10 practices of vulnerability, based on Posner/Kouzes work was published in SOLUTION SATURDAY – 10 WAYS TO BUILD VULNERABILITY INTO CULTURE.

Five Benefits:

  1. Self-protective leaders spend their energy maintaining image. It’s draining. Vulnerability enables leaders to spend their energy on energizing others.
  2. Courage to be seen gives others courage to connect. Vulnerability is an open door for those who wish to connect.
  3. Protective silos block teamwork. Vulnerability breaks silos.
  4. People dare to engage when they dare to be themselves.
  5. Strong relationships require transparency.

10 Ways to Build Vulnerability into Organizational Culture:

  1. Extend trust. Trust is given, not earned. The most vulnerable thing a leader does is extend trust. 
  2. Practice optimistic transparency. Don’t pretend things are easy when they’re challenging.People won’t trust you if they think you’re faking.
  3. Reject ridicule.
  4. Listen with empathy. When you feel compassion, let it out.Leadership empathy fuels momentum. Don’t use empathy to validate failure or lack of effort.
  5. Speak from your heart. Organizations are filled with talking heads. Leaders of influence speak from the heart.
  6. Honor constructive dissent. Reject whining.
  7. Welcome new ideas and learn from mistakes.
  8. Share what you’re learning. Expose personal ignorance.Say: A. I never thought of that. B. I’m learning. C. I’m reading…
  9. Give credit.
  10. Live by shared values. The fence around safe playgrounds is built of shared values. Call out public violations of shared values.

Character Moves:

  1. Know what vulnerability is, and recognize when you see it in action. Note that none of the above 10 practices involves walking around with a box of Kleenex (although there is a place for that too).
  1. Accept vulnerability as a strengthBeing vulnerable makes us better leaders because we stop wasting energy protecting ourselves from what we think other people shouldn’t see. (Ironically, everyone knows our weaknesses anyway). By accepting vulnerability as strength, we stop worrying about having every answer. It’s also being real enough to recognize and admit that we will be wrong. Trying to hide that fact is what can make us weak.
  1. Practice vulnerabilityMost of us need to practice being vulnerable because it doesn’t always come naturally. There is a well-established myth about leaders having to lead every charge with the right answers blaring out from our bugles. Nope: Remind yourself that it’s not about you, but the people around you.

More vulnerability in the Triangle,


One Millennial View: There’s a term Millennials are likely aware of called a “try-hard.” It refers to the individual that goes way above and beyond to appear to be something they’re not. Was the person who “tried” to be the coolest, ever the coolest? The person who attempted to be funniest, ever that funny? Not in my experience. Pretending to be completely invulnerable is so transparent, it’s so “try-hard.” Having the integrity to be real is so much more respectable.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis