Real Leaders

The Importance of Vulnerability in Leadership Storytelling

Fjadrargljufur, Iceland, Europe. A man admires the panorama

As a leader, being vulnerable and sharing more than just the hard facts can add richness and meaning to the stories you tell. A storytelling expert explores why not telling your full, unfiltered story is actually a disservice to readers — and how being real can help people connect with your experiences.

“I want to be taken seriously,” he said hesitantly, almost with an air of sadness in the background.

On the other end of the phone, I hesitated too. “Can you tell me more about that?” I hoped a gentle probe would uncover the deeper truth beneath his statement.

“I want this book to be taken seriously, and I’m worried that sharing my own story within it will stop that from happening,” he explained. “I mean, how can I write about succeeding in business by talking about a fear of failing?”

There they were: The words I hear so often from high-level CEOs when we’re trying to put their life’s work on paper. The admission happens sooner or later, especially as they begin talking about the road that led to their success. Inevitably, that road was filled with potholes, detours, fender benders, and sometimes, full-on collisions. And though they’re well past those experiences, they often still feel the scars — and those scars make them anxious and uncomfortable.

More times than not, the CEOs I work with don’t know why they’re afraid to open up. But having experienced it firsthand for half a decade now, I can take a pretty good guess. It’s what we call the “vulnerability hangover,” and it’s especially troublesome for clients who aren’t accustomed to discussing their feelings. Consequently, they fall into the trap of believing that vulnerability somehow corrupts credibility.

It doesn’t, of course. If anything, sharing your most honest self creates more credibility. Stories about vulnerability — your vulnerability — reveal your human side. Which also makes you more relatable to your audience.

Why Vulnerability Is Important in Leadership Stories

No matter who you’re sharing your story with (other leaders, entrepreneurs, or your employees), they’ll appreciate knowing that you faced obstacles and challenges just like they did. And still are.

Remember: Running a business is hard work. Everyone knows that. For instance, sharing the truth that trying to keep everything together during a global pandemic and time of social unrest was challenging for you creates a more expansive view of who you are as a leader. Rather than seeming like someone who knows it all, you come across as someone who has wrestled with the same trials all people in leadership positions face. The only difference is you’re peeling back all the layers and highlighting your journey with wholeness and honesty.

Not entirely convinced that stories of vulnerability in leadership will increase your credibility? Imagine an entrepreneur just starting out. She’s looking for advice and mentorship on the road that lies ahead. She picks up your book. Chapter after chapter, she sees your words on the page.

When she closes the book, what do you hope she takes away from your work? Do you want her to believe that your only truth was the finish line of success? Or do you want her to say, “He traveled the same road that I’m traveling. I get it now.”

Too often, we think we’re serving readers by only outlining happy endings. But everyone knows that the best stories include a bit of dragon-slaying along the way. If you talk about an effortless climb to the top, you won’t inspire anyone. But, on the other hand, if you share your vulnerable story — the story of tenacity, reliance, and hard work — you’re more likely to connect with audiences and win their loyalty.

To showcase the importance of vulnerability in leadership stories, consider EarthKind’s founder and CEO, Kari Warberg Block. Kari is focused on changing the face of the U.S. pest control industry with botanical alternatives to poisonous substances. Yet, she didn’t wake up one morning at the top of her game. Quite the contrary. She spent a lot of time maneuvering around roadblocks, challenges, and setbacks.

However, Kari doesn’t hide her obstacles. In her recent book, “Gathering Around the Table: A Story of Purpose-Driven Change Through Business,” she candidly shares some of her most disheartening moments as an entrepreneur. Kari’s transparency, combined with her unfettered encouragement and perseverance, has made her a mentor for readers hoping to make similar impacts.

Would Kari’s book have been a good read even if she hadn’t included stories about vulnerability? Absolutely. But without showing the cracks, the uncomfortable parts of her journey, she couldn’t have given readers a fully authentic understanding of how to succeed.

How to Be Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Admittedly, sharing your whole self — vulnerabilities and all — is uncomfortable for many of us. But like any skill, you can master being comfortable with being uncomfortable. So start today by answering the following questions. Each one is designed to free you from the constant headache of the vulnerability hangover:

1. What scares you the most?

Be honest. What are you most afraid of? No matter your response, I can almost guarantee dozens of other people are wrestling with the same thoughts and feeling, just as unsure about how to express them. When you sit with your feelings of discomfort, you force yourself to stand at the edge of a figurative dock overlooking a lake of cold water. Will you be the first to jump in? Summoning up the courage to take the first leap might be challenging, but it gives everyone else the strength to follow.

2. What are your perceived successes and failures?

Over the course of working with countless leaders, I’ve realized that they have varying perspectives of what it means to fail. Genuinely successful leaders, however, reframe setbacks as feedback. In other words, they view hiccups, mishaps, and even embarrassing outcomes as opportunities to understand what doesn’t work. And learning from that lesson, they are taken one step closer to the outcome they hope to accomplish. List your perceived successes and failures, then evaluate them. Are the failures just gateways to offer more richness to your origin story as an entrepreneur? Often, you’ll find that the answer to that question is “yes.”

3. What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned?

Show me a successful leader, and I’ll show you someone who’s taken the long way home more than once. Why? Detours are a part of business life, especially if you’re a driven, ambitious dreamer. Offering audiences your valuable, vulnerable lessons shows that you aren’t someone to be placed on a pedestal. Instead, you’re always willing to learn and grow — even if you have to learn and grow the hard way.

If you ever share your story by writing a book or giving a speech, you have two options: You could share what you’ve done and call it a day, or you could share your vulnerable self, right down to your bones. I recommend the latter. It’ll remind the world that you didn’t just win to get to where you are. You won against the odds.

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