Real Leaders

Vulnerability Gets a Bad Rap: How to Open Up in 2021

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By welcoming fear and feedback, you can become a more vulnerable and gracious leader. Here are a few great ways to embrace vulnerability.

Most people immediately equate the idea of leadership with how you run your business. But to me, leadership is simple: It’s about how you show up. It’s how you inspire and support your people, your stakeholders, and your company or agency as a whole.

Great leadership isn’t just about getting people to do what you want. It’s about inspiring them to want to do what you ask because they are emotionally invested in the company.

Your leadership capabilities were never tested more than they were in 2020. You had to make significant decisions for your company or agency with limited information — all while instilling confidence in your people that you would guide them through the storm of the pandemic. It might have been the most challenging thing you’ve ever done, but trust me when I say it was worth it.

You’re reaping the benefits of that commitment as we move through 2021 and beyond. Your team sees you differently, and its members admire and respect you because you remained transparent even when you didn’t have the answers.

They saw your vulnerability, they know you were repairing the plane while flying it, and they appreciate you for it. That’s why employee engagement rates are trending up — because you experienced adversity together and were better for it.

Stuck in Survival Mode?

Wherever we head next, it has to be less tumultuous than 2020. You might feel stuck and like you don’t know what to do now that you’re out of survival mode. The natural temptation is to leave your guard up, but you have to fight it.

Your people love you for the more relatable and open-minded leader you have become. It’s crucial to make time for your team and cultivate trust with them. Be present with them, listen to them, and understand them. Nothing matters more than you and your team’s happiness. If that’s what you’re focused on, the rest will fall into place.

The good news is that you already have great momentum! No one had the answers in 2020. As a leader, you were forced to show your hand, become transparent, and embrace vulnerability. You don’t move backward from a change like that. By embracing the headway you’ve already made as a transparent and relatable leader, you’ll be able to carry that growth forward into the future.

The Value of Vulnerability

Great discomfort always precedes great outcomes, and you have to be willing to let yourself feel uncomfortable before seeing the benefits. Here’s how to take the leap to open up, even when it’s not easy.

1. Welcome feedback.

Embracing criticism may not sound fun, but it’s necessary if you want to grow as a leader and help your employees become more engaged and happy. Remember that feedback fosters vulnerability, which breeds authenticity. This openness will ultimately strengthen your team as a whole.

Communicate to your team that you’re open to hearing from them — and listen when they share their opinions. You can remain confident while getting vulnerable with your team. The ability to pair the two will be a critical leadership skill moving forward.

Listen without getting defensive, and practice active listening skills to show your team that you are genuinely and authentically engaged with what they have to say. Be sure to follow up so they know that even if their ideas weren’t implemented exactly as you asked, the ideas informed other decisions you made and did make a difference.

2. Face fear head-on.

Leaders often shy away from vulnerability because they don’t like feeling weak, unprepared, or open to criticism. Fear is at the root of this reservation. To be a great leader, you have to push aside your worries and lead from the heart.

We don’t use these words enough in business, but I believe there is a place in our business vernacular for words like love, commitment, compassion, and grace. These are all qualities of leaders who are willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves from time to time.

3. Evaluate your tolerance.

Last December, I had a conversation with an agency owner about how her year was ending. Despite the pandemic’s challenges, she was able to make a remarkable shift in her business.

She listed off small reasons she thought contributed to the pivot, but I responded, “With all due respect, I don’t think it’s any of that. You stopped tolerating mediocrity in 2020. You finally held your vendors, your partners, and your employees to a different standard of excellence, and they either rose to that standard or left — and now you’re surrounded by excellence.”

That owner decided to stop accepting ordinary effort. Sometimes, being a great leader isn’t about what you say and do. It’s about who and what you tolerate in your business.

Our business culture doesn’t do true leadership justice. “Leadership” often gets relegated to the same bucket as running a business, but it’s actually about how you show up, embrace vulnerability, and prioritize the long-term growth of your people and your company. By letting yourself welcome fear and feedback, you can become a more vulnerable and gracious leader this year and beyond.

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