Vulnerability is crucial for effective leadership and a cooperative work environment.
When a “tough exterior” backfires
We are not our parents’ generations. And you don’t have to be on TikTok to realize that.
Nowadays, when we see the apathetic, overbearing boss in a movie or TV show, we can’t help but scoff, and maybe we even laugh. We read listicles of screenshots from horrible bosses who get their own doors slammed in their faces.
These past two years have made successful leaders realize more than ever that treating their employees’ experiences—and their own—with stoic indifference is no longer an effective leadership strategy.
And the ones who haven’t?
Well, let’s just say that it hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing.
Employees who are miserable, lack emotional investment in the company’s collective goals, or who simply get bored, head out. It’s simple: “If you don’t like it, you can leave,” is no longer a threat—it can be a welcome invitation.
If you’re struggling to create a unified front of motivated employees with creative explosiveness, a good place to start is at the top, not the bottom, of the ladder. How you present yourself both to and towards your team is essential for growth and feeding a singular vision.
This becomes even more important in terms of working with remote teams. And while outsourcing work can definitely help your team tackle more, if you’re not making efforts to create unity among all of the team’s components, it can exacerbate feelings of isolation.
So get ready to take a look in the mirror and to admit your flaws. Then get ready to say them out loud. You might even find yourself, and your agency, benefitting along the way.
Modern advancements create modern problems that require modern solutions. That solution comes in the form of a vested interest in each employee and a willingness to admit that neither you nor your agency is flawless.
Common misconceptions about vulnerability
The leaders of yesteryear would argue that leading by example means demanding excellence and emotional neutrality at every turn. Today’s successful leaders realize that this is not only unrealistic, but it’s impossible. It’s also a one-way ticket to lackluster output and a turnover rate to make heads (and payrolls) spin.
Vulnerability makes you, as a leader, accessible—in all the right ways. It’s the not-so-secret ingredient that awakens all of the other flavors in the recipe of your agency, highlighting and giving each part the recognition it deserves.
Misconception 1: “Leaders should always display a strong front.”
It’s important and beneficial to be honest to a fault with your employees about what is going on, not only in your own life but also with your agency.
Leveling with your employees about the problems you are facing gives you a twofold advantage—it allows you to shed the members of your team who are less invested in the overall outcome, while also making you more relatable. No one expects an agency’s numbers to be constantly on the rise, but keeping team members in the dark creates scattered anxiety more than blind faith.
Simon Sinek reminds us here that “a whisper becomes a shout” when it’s a leader who’s passing on the information. So if you’ve got a flair for the dramatic, it might be better to maintain a policy of language that’s tempered—until it’s necessary.
But honesty is always the best policy. As we see in the case of Archana Patchirajan (cited in this Harvard Business Review article), consistency in communication with your team is what creates both an investment in the overall success of the project and respect for you as a leader.
Misconception 2: “They’ll walk all over me.”
Leading gracefully with conviction is an entirely different animal than maintaining an “iron fist.”, and staying true to your principles while leaving room for forgiveness has nothing to do with weakness. These are the traits of leadership that build respect and community.
Creating a healthy environment where “mistakes” are not synonymous with “failures” doesn’t create ambivalent, abusive employees. On the contrary, it opens the door for communication, accessibility, and even deference.
Where in your organization are you feeling pushback, or a lack of push altogether? Building your team up through reassurance and relatability might be what you’re missing in your leadership strategy.
So go ahead—admit that you are not perfect, that you’ve experienced similar struggles, and that stumbling blocks are a part of everyone’s path. Transmit grace, selflessness, shared ambition, and compassion. Watch what happens to your agency’s vital signs.
Misconception 3: “I’m not naturally a ‘touchy-feely’ person, so I shouldn’t try to fake it.”
Being “touchy-feely” is not synonymous with vulnerability. They only go hand-in-hand for people who don’t understand the benefits of open communication. The term “touchy-feely” in itself is a really weird expression that has been used to show disdain for different personalities and groups of people for far too long.
No one here is telling you to break out the acoustic guitar and dole out hugs if it’s not your style. Everyone’s leadership style is different, but everyone’s leadership style has room to incorporate vulnerability. It can come in the simplest form of a gracious email or a listening ear.
In a world where we are often starved for community, sometimes the smallest gestures can be all it takes to create a better atmosphere. So don’t try to be a leader that you’re not—just try to be a more open and understanding human in the work environment.
Displaying fierceness through empathy
There’s a bit of common sense that some leaders seem to be missing right now, and it’s this: Campaigns and projects that are filled with life don’t come from desensitized, lifeless robots. Without energy, motivation, and some unified driving force, our agencies cannot thrive.
Vulnerability from the leadership side involves a lot of effective, empathetic communication. It is listening, relating, and creating responses that make employees feel both seen and heard.
If there’s one thing that infuriates younger generations in the workplace, it’s a lack of understanding of real needs and insecurities, and their inflexible leaders’ attempts to bandage up this issue with pizza parties.
Don’t become a new iteration of that one boss you had that you still resent to this day.
Test out these phrases and see how they feel. Each of them represents an important insecurity or issue that employees regularly complain about having.
- “I remember when I was learning how to do that.”
- “I’m sorry if I’ve seemed a little bit more absent lately. It has nothing to do with the quality of your work—I’ve just got a lot on my plate right now.”
- “Let’s brainstorm ways to solve this together.” (NOT: “How can I help you do your job better?”)
- “When you did x, it was amazing!”
And regularly practice saying the most beautiful, important, and empowering phrase of all: “I don’t know.”
The fierceness of a unified front
Creating an environment where you are leading a group of interconnected, inspired employees is essential for success in the long run. You can’t do this alone, after all. One-person battalions don’t win wars. While it might seem unnecessary now, you are reinforcing your team for the inevitable ups and downs that all agencies face.
Embrace the power of your own emotions and personal struggles, both past and present. Use the human experience to fortify your workplace relationships and your agency as a whole.
Introducing vulnerability into your leadership style is not an overnight change though, especially if the opposite has been ingrained into you for your entire working life. To start, simply practice the age-old adage of putting yourself in your employees’ shoes.
There are few situations in life and work that could not be benefited with a little more empathy. And who knows? Through open communication, you might find help for your agency’s—and your own—shortcomings, from the most unexpected of sources.
As a leader, you have the power to make or break, others’ working experiences. This in turn determines your agency’s long-term success.
Choose wisely, listen carefully, and speak openly—it’s what makes you a fierce leader.