I learned many lessons through my years of leading companies, but without question, the most surprising thing I learned was this:
The thing you can do that will make you the strongest, is the thing that is most counter-intuitive to do: Be openly vulnerable.
Being vulnerable was not my strong suit growing up. In my mind, being vulnerable meant being weak and available to be hurt. That likely stemmed from the fact that my family moved numerous times growing up, which meant that I was constantly the new kid at school. Anyone who has been the new kid before knows that a new kid is prime real estate for being picked on if they show even the slightest sign of weakness, or so I believed. So I learned to hide my fears and to always act with confidence, which in many ways served me well because it helped me to put myself out there and try new things that I might not otherwise have been willing to try. It was that “I can do anything” attitude that likely led me to become an entrepreneur back when it appeared that all the odds were stacked against me. Allowing myself to be openly vulnerable wasn’t even a consideration back then and I would even say that I took great lengths to avoid it.
But, as is often the case, life began teaching me some very valuable lessons as I was running my first business. Not allowing myself to appear vulnerable meant I had to be perfect at everything. I had to be in control of everything because that was the only way to have the outcome turn out according to my perfect plans. It was exhausting. Not only was it exhausting for me, but it created a miserable situation for the people I was leading. You see, if leaders can’t allow themselves to be vulnerable then they send a clear message that no one who works for them is allowed to be vulnerable either. Leaders who expect perfection from themselves are sending the message that they expect only perfection from those around them as well. It is an impossible expectation for anyone to live up to, both for the leader as well as the people they are responsible to lead, because the reality is that no one is perfect. No one. And try as we may in this life, none of us will ever get there because we are, after all, only human, and as such we are by nature imperfect beings all striving to improve ourselves to the best of our ability.
I finally began to recognize that my unwillingness to show vulnerability as a leader was causing everyone around me to feel inadequate and that was the last thing that I had ever wanted. My passion in life and my personal mission statement is “to help others to excel”, yet here I was creating an atmosphere that didn’t allow anyone to excel, including myself, because my lack of vulnerability meant that anything less than perfection was failure. I was instantly making all of us failures. I had finally figured out that something had to change and that something was me. It was time for me embrace being vulnerable.
I can’t say that “being vulnerable” takes courage because every single one of us are vulnerable whether we acknowledge it or not. We are all vulnerable to disappointment, sadness, sickness, death, loss, failure, losing our job, losing love, and so on. But embracing our vulnerability, and even more important, openly embracing it, well that does take courage, and lots of it! But it was through embracing my own vulnerability and admitting to my employees and clients that I was imperfect and making mistakes that I was learning and growing from, that I was able to become a truly strong leader. You see, the thing that made me strong was the support of those very people, who knowing I needed them, were willing to support me and stand by me and help me in my efforts to become a better leader and to lead our company to become a success.
People who won’t embrace vulnerability project a message of: I am perfect and you are not, so how then can we ever relate? But if a person is admittedly imperfect and so are you, then you instantly have a bond that allows you to relate to one another and a connection is formed. It is those connections that will cause people to give you their very best efforts because they want to help you succeed. It is also those connections that will cause people to look to you as someone they can learn from because you have now given them permission to try and fail and grow from it, just as you have. You are setting an attainable example for others to follow and it is one that will truly allow them to excel.
It takes courage to admit that you are not perfect. It takes courage to acknowledge that you cannot control the outcomes, especially when your entire job is to produce outcomes. But all of those things are the truth whether you admit them or not, so why not embrace them? You will never achieve perfection, so the most you can do is live your life in honest pursuit of it. You will never control the outcomes, so the most you can do is live your life controlling your best efforts. You will never control how others feel about you or treat you, so the most you can do is control your ability to love others and treat them well.
Being openly vulnerable is the very thing that will make you strong.
~Amy Rees Anderson (author of the book “What Awesome Looks Like: How To Excel in Business & Life” )
(Taken from Forbes article I wrote in 2014)