The Vulnerable Manager and Why It’s a Good Thing

"Today, I am still working towards opening up and being more vulnerable. However, I have found that being vulnerable to my team as a manager has been liberating and transformative."

- Apex Executive

Risk management is rooted in uncertainty and so is vulnerability. An effective manager manages risk and vulnerability. Author Brené Brown identifies vulnerability as a combination of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.

Managing from a Vulnerable Position

If you are emotionally exposed, it means that you are readily understood by and available to others. You’re willing to take the risks that go with speaking openly and speaking first. You’re willing to share a concept that others may perceive as silly or inane. You allow your natural reactions to flow from events. If others are describing you, they may use terms like authentic, open, and real. Those terms stem from an innate ability to share feelings and perceptions, as well as facts and interpretations.

As managers, we face risk and exposure daily. Life coach and author Karen Anderson offer a short list of examples of vulnerability:

  • Telling others when they’ve done something to upset you
  • Sharing with someone something personal about yourself that you would typically hold back
  • Having the willingness to feel pride or shame
  • Reaching out to someone you haven’t talked to in a while and would like to reconnect with
  • Setting boundaries with love and compassion versus from a place of blame
  • Putting yourself out there and risking rejection

Now, as a manager, test yourself against that list. It’s a good test. If you are willing to take on those traits, you face risk and exposure. You also create surprising appeal to those around you. As you take those steps and show a willingness to take them first, others will follow. It’s a fundamental leadership principle. Note, however, that you need to take the steps first. 

This might seem like an exercise in soft skills management. In fact, it’s more of an open-door policy on life. The willingness to share information about your human side is indicative of a desire to share the most sensitive aspects of your lives. It’s not TMI (too much information). It should be, instead, Sharing Open Personal Stuff (SOPS). Making vulnerability a standard operating procedure projects a readiness to be closer to others and gives them insight into what makes you tick. 

Think about the aspects of your life that make you who you are:

  • Family
  • Faith
  • Fears
  • Faults
  • Friends

And that’s just the “F”s. Below is how I've responded to each.

  • Family – I’ve been married to my lovely wife for 37 years and count every year as an honor. She is the single wisest choice I ever made.
  • Faith – I have a deep and abiding faith in a higher power that provides solace in my darkest times. I pray for better days every day.
  • Fears – I have had multiple near-death encounters and know that while my bucket-list is largely complete, I’m not ready to embrace the end. 
  • Faults – Someday I may actually learn to shut up.
  • Friends – My circle of friends is too small, and I hope to find a way to render it larger.

Sharing just a small window into the soul on those items indicates a high degree of vulnerability. Take my short list bulleted above. None of those may come across as surprising, but they provide a clear window on areas where I am genuinely vulnerable. Do you want to understand a fellow human more fully? Find out their vulnerabilities. Do you want to enable others to understand YOU more thoroughly? Be willing to share your vulnerabilities with others.

Why don’t we? In many instances, we don’t share the more personal side of ourselves for fear that others will negatively leverage the information. They’ll push back and somehow use the information to their advantage. How sad for them.

If we can find ways to have an open-door policy on our vulnerabilities, we can build deeper and more profound relationships. We can get support on our day-to-day (and longer-term) fears without necessarily even asking for it. As we go through trying experiences, others will work to become our back-ups. As we acknowledge our silliness, faults, and failings, those around us can help clarify ways to triumph and improve our lot in life.

Getting Started

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." That quote is from the Dao de Jing or the Book of the Way. That little tidbit of 2,500-year-old insight is profound in that it looks at the small steps along the way to any achievement. Vulnerability is one such ongoing achievement. Do you want others to open up to you? Try a measure of being vulnerable. Do you want to build relationships that are more abiding? Same! Do you want others to understand you better? A single step creates that opportunity. 

It’s not a new idea. It’s a door being opened. It’s a door we open ourselves. And every time we leave that door open, we are vulnerable to loss or gain. Most of the time, however, it’s for a shared gain with those in our circle.

Do you want to test your ability to be vulnerable? Laugh. Heartily. At yourself! Much of the most effective managers are willing to look at themselves and see their foibles. Much of the most vulnerable yet appealing individuals are those who can do likewise. When someone can point to their shortcomings and recognize them as absurdity, it’s a powerful step. When we can tell our personal stories and make others the heroes and heroines, we can enjoy the role of foil. When we’re looking at what’s gone right in the project and applaud others, we serve everyone’s interests.  

Vulnerable managers live with a shared shield of empathy. People look at vulnerable peers and have no problem seeing a reflection of themselves. In fact, they may savor the similarities they see, as they envy the manager’s ability to self-deprecate (on the right occasions) and his or her capacity to acknowledge that perfection is not all it’s cracked up to be. However, Brené Brown strikes the nail on the head when she points out “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” That sounds like the soul of effective management.