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  • Jason R. Waller

How Founders Can Build Extraordinary Leadership Through Vulnerability

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

Core ideas:

  • Courage is the main ingredient of vulnerability

  • Vulnerability is the foundation of trust

  • Trust is the foundation of distinctive teams and leaders

  • Vulnerability is a skill, and any skill gets better with practice


I recently had the honor of facilitating an executive leadership program in my hometown of Seattle. It was amazing to bring dozens of area executives together under the banner of personal growth and leadership development, but more amazing still was the focus of our first day. It was entirely built around personal leadership and the theme of vulnerability. The idea that a whole day would be dedicated to “opening up” struck me as something special, and something worth talking more about.


Why it matters


The topic of vulnerability has been top-of-mind in the business and leadership development community for years now. A quick Google search of “leadership and vulnerability” returns nearly 65 million results and more than 600,000 scholarly articles. Last week, I watched Brené Brown’s talk The Call to Courage on Netflix, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s amazing and you should. Much of her celebrated work has focused on the interplay of courage and vulnerability, especially where it touches themes of leadership.


So why all this attention? Because vulnerability is the biggest contributor to something that makes teams truly exceptional. In a word, trust. In two words, psychological safety. Psychological safety is also getting a lot of press these days, but really it’s just the individual idea of trust expanded into a team and its norms. And this idea of team trust has some big implications on outcomes. Research by Amy Edmonson and her team found that teams with strong psychological safety had higher metrics for team performance, employee engagement, employee wellbeing, and innovation, while similarly having lower error rates and turnover. Project Aristotle, a multi-year internal Google study to understand why some teams succeed and others fail, came to a similar conclusion: psychological safety was the number-one predictor of their highest-performing teams.



So, if vulnerability is the foundation of trust in individuals and teams, and if this trust is the secret to unlocking breakaway performance in teams, why are we so bad at it? It’s all comes back to the courage to be vulnerable. As Brené Brown points out in her talk, vulnerability isn’t about the easy stuff. It’s not just sharing that time when you vomited at a wedding or admitting when you have the flu. It’s about being courageous to open yourself up to the things that you’re actually uncomfortable showing to others. It’s being okay with not knowing the answer in front of a boss, or inviting challenging questions into the room. It’s not just sharing you have the flu, but being honest that you feel like you’re letting the team down. Openness does not automatically equal vulnerability—vulnerability is something bigger.


How to bring vulnerability into your team


The good news is that there are things we can all do to be more courageous and practice vulnerability in a way that has meaningful impact. Based on some recent coaching I’ve been giving, this message is aimed at startup founders. Founders experience a lot of uncomfortable stretching. Some of this comes with growing a team from 4 to 40 to 400 people in a short timeframe, and this can cause some armor to be put on along the way. But really, vulnerability applies to any leader—and we are all leaders.


Let’s get tactical. The courage to be vulnerable is easy enough to say, but a damn hard thing to put into practice. But this is the operative word, “practice.” I have four challenges for you.


Challenge 1: Experiment with getting closer to what’s going on in your body and mind


Right now, grab a piece of paper and write down one thing you’re thinking or feeling, one thing that’s alive for you in this moment. Maybe you have something big going on in a relationship, maybe you’re just hungry. Have it? Great—now ask yourself “what about this is important to me?” Ask this question again, keep going until you feel like you have something that is really meaningful and core to you. What’s alive for me right now? “My big Q3 project is a mess, it’s not going according to plan.” What about this is important to me? “I’m worried that it’s going to be a failure.” What about this is important to me? “I don’t want other people to think I did a bad job.” What about this is important to me? “I want people to accept me.” This is the point at which my clients often breathe a sigh of relief; they’ve finally arrived to something that matters and are resonating with it. We’re great at getting to the root cause of a problem, but finding the core of a feeling is unfamiliar territory for most.


Challenge 2: Practice saying what’s really real


The next time you meet someone today, blurt out something that’s true for you. Something honest, something real. It doesn’t have to be profound or intense, and it’s not about “unloading.” Skip past the hey-how-are-you-good-how-are-you and just say it. “I’m feeling pretty grateful right now, it’s such a lovely day and I’m really looking forward to the weekend.” Or “I’m a bit tired this morning and a feeling distracted by a customer email.” Notice how the topics of these examples aren’t revolutionary. It’s typical watercooler banter in some ways. But you’re bringing more of you into it. You’re moving from commentator to actor, and inviting others to meet you there. Yes, there are social norms that frown on oversharing; ask yourself how close you really are to crossing that line and, for now, just try it out. Lastly, if you really don’t know what to share, try something like “I’m trying to practice being more vulnerable in my conversations, and I’m feeling uncomfortable with it right now.



Challenge 3: Surround yourself with people who can show you the way


My parents did a great job of raising me, but when I was young, nearly all of it was undone by one bad friend I spent most of my time with. It’s a small lesson that reinforces a simple truth: you are what you eat and you become the people you surround yourself with. Choose wisely, and find mentors who exemplify authentic leadership. Find peers that are open and encouraging. Get a coach or a counselor, they speak in this language of honesty and vulnerability and can help you practice speaking it, too. Today, find at least one new person who can help you grow into a more vulnerable leader.


Challenge 4: Role model vulnerability and invite courage into the room


Just like finding the right influences and role models is critical for your own personal development, you need to be a role model for vulnerability to your teams. The earlier challenges will help build that muscle, and also appreciate the idea that, even by reading this far in an article about vulnerability, you’re stronger in this skill than you were before. Celebrate that! What’s the next meeting that you’ll be leading? Take a bit of this new skill to that meeting and start practicing. Here’s an easy way to get started: today, mark out five minutes at the beginning of the agenda for team check-in, then send the agenda out. On the day of the meeting, do what’s comfortable to you, but I like asking each person for three words that describe what’s true for them right now (as simple as “excited” or “tired”). Whatever you do, though, role model by going first and be vulnerable to say something real. Listen to what people are saying, think about how you can meet them where they are, and notice if this meeting feels different than other meetings.



In conclusion


Courage is the starting point of true vulnerability, and vulnerability is the foundation of trust. At the team level, psychological safety or trust within the team is the core element of distinctive performance and leadership. Like any skill, vulnerability takes practice. I proposed four challenges that can be started today. Don’t wait! Do them now, while this idea is alive for you. But also celebrate the reality that everyone is different, that and no uncomfortable change comes without a strong operational process in place. If you really want to become more vulnerable, take some time to think through what you can be doing on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Think about how to hold yourself accountable. Good luck and godspeed on your journey.


#leadership #vulnerability #startup