Chain with one broken link made from a weaker, thinner material - Graphic

There are so many occasions where I reflect on Brené Brown’s TedTalk on shame and vulnerability.

Brenė Brown is a social researcher, self-proclaimed storyteller and expert on social connection. She has conducted thousands of interviews to determine what lies at the root of social connection, claiming it to be vulnerability and authenticity.

Her 2010 presentation had a huge impact on me because it gave me the permission as a leader to be imperfect.

In so many teams and organisations, human connection is often missing from the workplace – especially in senior leadership positions. We are taught to keep a distance from one another and project a certain image that is often characterised by confidence, competence, control and authority.

For me, this projection became really uncomfortable early on. I began to realise that in the pursuit of projecting what I thought a leader should be, I was compromising my authenticity by covering up my vulnerabilities.

I felt there was something inherently missing from being able to take my teams from performing well, to high performing.

Brown’s talk made me ask the questions: What is the role of vulnerability in business? Does vulnerability have a place in leadership?

As Brené Brown describes it; ‘I was driven by this straight jacket of trying to do it all, doing it perfectly and never letting anyone see me sweat. I was absolutely afraid that someone would find out who I really was – that I didn’t know it all and I didn’t have all the answers. I was terrified that someone would discover a soft spot and take advantage of it.’

But here in lies the problem.

If we as humans we are biologically programmed to read each other’s states, download and interpret micro-expressions and almost immediately recognise a lack of authenticity, then without doubt, we are fooling no one when we do this. And people do not want to follow a fake.

So I asked myself, if no one wants to follow fake, would they follow flawed?

The only way to answer this was to be fearless. So I leaned into my vulnerability, and become courageous about who I was and changed the way I lead:

  • I asked my team openly about things I did not know;
  • I listened and facilitated solutions from others;
  • I shared my areas of weakness with my team and asked them for support;
  • I made it absolutely clear that I did not know it all and needed every single one of them; and
  • I deepened our relationships by sharing parts of my personal life and purposefully became genuinely interested in theirs.

The results were almost immediate. This augmented everyone’s desire to support myself and the wider team. It galvanized our commitment to each other and it ignited our motivation to work even harder. Vulnerability gave us collective purpose and the thing about people with purpose, is that they perform.

This was a paradigm shift for me. It was hard. It was risky. I felt emotionally exposed, but  there was nothing left to project. Not only did the team perform at a level that I never thought possible but it took the pressure off me to be perfect. I realised how important it is to align who you are outside of work with who you are at work, because as the disparity between the two grows two things happen: 1. You exhaust yourself, and those around you inevitably notice the counterfeit. 2. And you simply cannot lead a high performing team, tired and trust-less.

So, in my experiment about being honestly me, I learned that vulnerability in business and leadership is not weakness. Vulnerability is emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty, but this takes courage and everyone respects courage and honesty.

I realised that this new found leadership, true leadership, is not at all about being fake. It is all about being absolutely fearless about your flaws.

Ella Farrell is an Associate of the BRS Team located in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ella is business process improvement specialist with project management, implementation and change management experience. She is an exemplary communicator and experienced facilitator with all organisational levels ranging from client employees to regulatory authorities. Click here to read more on Ella Farrell.