At Work

The Importance of Vulnerability in Leadership

When Should Leaders Embrace Weakness? When Should They Avoid It?
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Exercising leadership in a way that blesses others is a daunting task. Pastors, CEOs, supervisors, and all manner of leaders with people under them are obligated to conduct themselves so that their business and those for whom they bear responsibility will both flourish.

There are many qualities a leader needs to make flourishing possible, but one that has gotten more attention in the past few years is vulnerability.

In order to avoid the extreme of excessive openness that hinders flourishing, though, we should take care to understand what it means to be appropriately vulnerable. In Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing, Andy Crouch explores this question of what vulnerability should look like.

Hidden Strength

Crouch defines authority as “the capacity for meaningful action” and vulnerability as “exposure to meaningful risk.”

Leaders have the capacity for meaningful action simply by virtue of the power that comes with their position, granted to them by a board of directors, the congregation, or whoever else. Being exposed to meaningful risk is also inherent within leadership. To take on risk, in Crouch’s words, is,

To be exposed to the possibility of loss—and not just loss of things or possessions, but loss of our own sense of self.

The possibility of loss exists on two levels, the institutional and the personal.

At the institutional level, leaders face risk when external or internal circumstances threaten the well-being of the organization as a whole.

At the personal level, leaders assume risk when they decline to act as a dictator, always exerting their will over and against the considerations of others. By leaving room for others to act, leaders allow for the possibility that they may undergo pushback or criticism, or even outright rebuke, which in a limited sense would be a loss.

Understanding the distinction between institutional vulnerability and personal vulnerability is key to knowing when leaders should be openly vulnerable, and when they should not. In the case of institutional vulnerability, leaders ought to keep risks hidden and bear them silently. To do otherwise would be a serious impediment to flourishing within the organization, as Crouch explains:

Revealing…[this kind] of vulnerability will at best distract, and at worst paralyze, the community we are responsible for, robbing them of the opportunity for real flourishing. Because the community does not have the authority—the capacity for meaningful action—to deal with these vulnerabilities, asking the community to bear them will only plunge the community more deeply into Suffering.

In this way, being a vulnerable leader means having the strength to not broadcast the dangers facing an organization that only the leader can address. Doing so only serves to burden everyone else. That being said, exhibiting “weakness” through personal vulnerability will contribute greatly to the flourishing of an organization.

Personal Vulnerability

We are all fallible beings, so even leaders will inevitably make mistakes now and again. Moreover, the demands that are placed on a leader are usually too much for one person to bear. In response to these issues, Crouch identifies three practices leaders can cultivate:

  • Accountability
  • Confrontation
  • Delegation

Regarding accountability, if leaders maintain openness in the nuts and bolts of an organization’s maintenance (as opposed to keeping things hidden), this will allow others within the organization to identify mistakes and rectify them. (For that matter, it will hopefully eliminate the temptation to fabricate, fudge, or otherwise be manipulative behind the scenes.)

By the same token, leaders can confront others in the organization if there is something amiss that needs to be corrected. While this may appear to be merely a show of strength and authority, in a way it is also an expression of vulnerability. By confronting a problem rather than ignoring it or trying to cover it up, people open themselves up to potential blowback if the exposure of the problem is not received well.

Finally, leaders can be vulnerable by delegating some of their work to other people. In doing this, they show that they trust others to do the work and do it well, even permitting for the possibility that the quality of the work may suffer as a result.

What ties these practices together is risk, the possibility of loss. If leaders resist the temptation to exercise authority in total autonomy and independence, they will bring flourishing to their organization.

All this may seem like basic stuff not worth dwelling on, Management 101. But I’ve found that the simplest truths are the ones that bear repeating. Appropriate vulnerability in leaders—being open and guarded in the right ways—can bless both the people a leader works with and the organization as a whole, whether it’s a church, school, business, or whatever else.

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