One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about leadership is deceptively simple: Good leaders are authentic and vulnerable.
Genuine leaders, in my own experience as well as those who’ve historically emerged as effective influencers, are those who risk being real.
Dr. Brene Brown, a social work researcher, says that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. And she’s right. When a leader isn’t afraid of their own vulnerability, they can foster it in those they hope to lead.
When I took on my first leadership role in education, it was an almost excruciating exercise in vulnerability. Suddenly, I faced the fact that I had a group of people looking to me to help them. The only help I seemed to have at the time was sharing all the mistakes I’d made. But, gradually this openness about my experience, coupled with an honest report of my practice created trust within my team. That trust released the team from a need to push an agenda, angle for position, or any of the other ugly behaviors that spring from insecurity. That’s when I realized that you can’t create trust unless you are willing to be real.
Brown’s definition of vulnerability is not one of weakness or humiliation. Rather, she sees it as a mindset. It springs from a deep sense of worthiness, from self-honesty, and self-acceptance. In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, she explains this counterintuitive advice as a willingness to accept uncertainty and a lack of control.
That definition runs counter to most management philosophies and strategies. But that’s just it. We’re not talking about management, we’re talking about leadership and to me, vulnerability and authenticity are the crucial distinctions between the two.
For example, at my school, it’s the teachers who are willing to say that they have more to learn, and who are open to learning from others, that create true innovation in their classrooms. They are willing to face the discomfort of not being “the smartest person in the room,” to examine their practice, to research, experiment, and work with others to find solutions.
This is the same idea exemplified in Abraham Lincoln’s willingness to actively build what historian Doris Kearns Goodwin famously named the “team of rivals.” He deliberately sought out those who opposed him as the ones to give him honest assessment of his plans during one of the nation’s most critical eras.
In art, it took an unheard of willingness to risk authenticity when those whom we now describe as Impressionist painters used their rejection from the Academy to create their own showing. The success of Renoir and Monet completely changed the course of modern art.
In music, Louis Armstrong’s innate sense of his own worthiness gave him the confidence to step out as a solo jazz performer, which in turn paved the way for musicians like Duke Ellington and Les Paul.
Closer to our own time, entrepreneur Richard Branson believes his willingness to embrace his dyslexia taught him to think differently and more creatively.
The lesson is a hard, but necessary paradox: leadership comes from embracing the people who argue with you, from risk, from change, and accepting our own limitations.
When we risk being real, when we do one small brave thing by saying to each other, “Here’s what I’ve tried, what have you tried?” That vulnerability is what creates true collaboration. And collaboration is what saves us. It’s what’s always saved us. It’s what defines true leadership.
Video: Louis Armstrong’s amazing “St. James Infirmary”
Slideshow & essay: Impressionism