Leadership through vulnerability

Having the courage to lead with vulnerability is the best kind of leadership

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Recently a LinkedIn post really caught my eye. It was a photograph of a female military pilot on a stage about to give a speech. So far, nothing special… However, her young son had decided that he didn’t want to sit next to his dad in the crowd but rather sit on his mum’s lap on the stage. In the caption, the pilot said she felt awkward and wondered how her male counterparts would perceive and judge her. In the end, she decided to show her human side and allowed her son to stay with her. The result is even more powerful than if she had only presented her professional side because, as it turns out, we are moved by vulnerability much more than a plethora of hard skills.

Why it matters to lead through vulnerability

Although we like to be inspired by a leader and turn towards them for guidance and support, we are also touched by someone who isn’t afraid of exposing their humanity with all its fallibilities. Hard skills are obviously required to get to the top positions in an organisation but the higher up one goes, the more soft skills one actually needs. This is a transition of focus from hard skills to soft skills: emotional intelligence (EI) becomes more paramount than IQ at senior leadership level. Allowing for vulnerability to surface shows that a leader is not afraid to admit to mistakes and errors or that they do not have all the answers but they are willing to listen to their team, learn from them and also from their own mistakes. That leader is not saying: I know it all or I don’t know and I don’t care but rather I don’t know; lets find out together. This kind of vulnerability gets the entire team to work together and brings the best out of each individual under the strong and supportive guidance of a leader.

What does it look like to lead through vulnerability

The classic image of the boss or leader being a tough, stiff upper lip guy who oozes authority and confidence is a cliché that does not belong to the twenty-first century.
Sometimes vulnerable leadership is to have the courage to go against the grain. During my twenty-year career in aviation, I held various leadership roles. One of these was as a race teams manager. I watched over a dozen race teams making sure they had everything they needed to enter the race and concentrate on giving their best performance with an end goal of winning and also that they adhered to the rules and regulations of the actual race and the event as a whole. My intention was always to listen to their emotional needs and to understand where they felt they needed support. Obviously, at times I made mistakes, didn’t have enough information to pass on or didn’t know the answer. In times like that, I took ownership of my shortcomings, tried to amend them as best I could and humbly apologised. This was one way of allowing my vulnerability to show.
However, in these races the stakes are high and emotions highly volatile which on many occasions led people to be extremely unforgiving. But I value the courage to be vulnerable over being right or popular no matter the cost. In the end, my unilateral virtue cost me my job as too many people got caught in the dog eat dog world of the races.
Still, I had the choice and I chose to lead my life with vulnerability.

Leading through vulnerability means that that person shines the light on their emotional and social competence while focusing on moving their team or goal forward. This is leadership at its best.

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Juju Chang is one of the cofounders of the Korean American Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has raised more than $10 million for programs serving under-resourced Korean American individuals and families./Courtesy Juju Chang
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