The best leaders are also the most vulnerable

CEOs need to be open – even if it means being uncomfortable

The best leaders are also the most vulnerable

Earlier this year, the Deputy Prime Minister of Denmark announced that he’d be taking some sick leave for stress.

Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, who’s also Denmark’s Minister of Defense, announced last week that he’ll be returning to work in August - having taken time off in February following a brief hospitalization. And while it’s rare that we see senior leaders taking time off for issues such as burnout, it’s incredibly inspiring and uplifting for those around them.

Because when leaders are open about their own struggles, it gives employees permission to be open too.

A global study from Catalyst of over 12,000 employees revealed that when managers are vulnerable, employees are more willing to go the extra mile for them. Despite this, the same study found that just four in 10 employees have a manager who showed openness – and just 24% said their leader was comfortable being vulnerable.

Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it’s a strength

But being strong isn’t the same as being unbreakable. And being vulnerable certainly isn’t a weakness. According to a report by Deloitte, organizations with a culture of transparency and openness are 3.5 times more likely to have high levels of employee engagement – with 87% of employees believing that a leader who’s vulnerable can positively impact company culture.

So why is there still this prevailing disconnect between what a leader is and what a leader is supposed to be? 

“An often unspoken element of leadership is that people in these positions are role models,” says Dr Melanie Peacock, associate professor of HR at Mount Royal. “People want to be able to trust, respect and look up to those who guide and manage others. This means that leaders must be vulnerable and authentic. 

“Showing one's true self doesn't have to be as complex as taking formal time away from work, although this could and should be done when medically required,” says Dr Peacock. “For example, using vacation days, taking a personal day off every now and then, setting boundaries for work hours and sharing non-work and personal interests and stories. All actions help remind employees that leaders are people too.”

Speaking to HRD in a recent interview, Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global and founder of The Huffington Post, says that authenticity in leadership relies a lot of that art of storytelling and vulnerability – highlighting HR’s role in this. In partnership with Walmart, the retail giant’s executive vice president, people & corporate affairs Nabeela Ixtabalan told HRD that she had suffered from workaholism – and that by sharing her own story, it helped her team to do so too.

“What I love about working with Nabeela,” says Huffington, “is that that first time I spoke to her, she said ‘My immediate goal is to stop leaders from pretending that they don't face problems like burnout’. Having written about her own journey, she’s given cultural permission to others to speak openly about theirs – which is amazing.”

Leading by example in vulnerability

It’s this willingness to be open, even if it makes you uncomfortable, that is the measure of a great leader. If the trials of the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that strong leaders know when to admit they’re struggling, when to accept that they’ve made a mistake and take steps to rectify it.

As for self-care, managers need to recognize the impact of leading by example. A study by the Centre for Creative Leadership found that leaders who lead by example were more effective in building trust with their teams. What’s more, a report by Deloitte found that companies with strong cultures of leadership, which can be fostered through leading by example, are 1.7 times more likely to be considered a top-performing organization.

“Employees need to know that what leaders are doing as this sets a cadence of expectations and norms,” says Dr Peacock. “In other words, leaders' focus on their own physical and mental wellbeing should not be an event or incident, but rather a part of ongoing behaviour that illuminates appropriate and expected behaviour for all.”

But if you’re still worried about the dangers of being vulnerable, of making a mistake, just take Madonna’s advice: “I’ve been popular and unpopular, loved and loathed, and I know how meaningless it all is. Therefore, I feel free to take whatever risks I want.”

Recent articles & video

Feds announce first steps of Action Plan to support Black public employees

CRA reviewing benefits of 200,000 Canadians

Best practices for hiring workers during mass layoffs

What’s the future of HR tech?

Most Read Articles

Court awards terminated fixed-term employee $81,000 for six weeks’ work

CRA reviewing benefits of 200,000 Canadians

Loblaw investing over $2B into 7,500 new jobs, ‘discount stores’