When you visualize a strong leader in the workforce, what do you see? Do you see a rational, put-together figure who makes decisive choices on behalf of their team? Or do you see someone who sometimes struggles with burnout, second guesses their decisions, and makes their fair share of mistakes?

The truth is, while many people would describe the first example, most of us probably have more in common with the latter.

So why is it that we hold leaders and executives to such a high standard? And why do those of us in leadership positions often beat ourselves up for not meeting that standard? Regardless of job title, salary and office placement, we’re all imperfect, vulnerable humans.

We recently sat down with Todd Buchanan, the Business & Operations Manager of Peer Support South East Ontario, and were inspired by his ideas about vulnerability and its role in creating strong leaders. 

Here’s a summary of his thoughts:

Vulnerability builds trust

To effectively lead a team, you need to establish trusting relationships with your team members. Trust is built on, among other things, reciprocity. While many workplaces normalize (or even set the expectation of) team members coming to their supervisors or managers with problems, the idea of supervisors and managers expressing their own struggles is very much outside the norm.

But if you’ve ever had a manager who was completely stoic and never expressed vulnerability when you spoke to them about an issue you were having, you know that it can be difficult to open up to someone who appears completely closed off.

You don’t need to take over a conversation to talk about your own problems—remember the importance of effective listening—but meeting a team member’s anxiety or frustration with vulnerability can have a positive impact on difficult conversations.

I understand where you’re coming from. 

I’m also struggling. 

I’m not sure how to solve this problem. Let’s figure it out together.

Being open and honest about where you’re at, rather than putting up a strong front, is what shows your team that you are authentic and, more importantly, human.

Vulnerable communication is effective communication

As Todd points out, teams and community members often have high expectations of their leaders, but don’t always look inwards at their expectations of themselves.

The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was a great example of this. Many people had a lot of questions about what leaders were doing to keep everyone safe in medical settings. Healthcare workers and community members looked to organizational leaders for the answers to impossible questions, and yet for many leaders, not having immediate solutions felt like a failure.

What we saw, however, was that people were often less anxious when organizatons were transparent with them about what they didn’t know, rather than trying to appear as though they had it all figured out.

Vulnerability allows leaders to work together with their team to solve difficult problems. Nobody has all the answers, and empowering people to be a part of creating solutions allows you to hold each other capable. 

Give yourself permission to be human

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable means giving ourselves permission to be imperfect and to not always know what to do—to be human.

This is the type of self-permission leaders need to manage their own burnout. Taking the pressure off yourself to always be the “perfect” leader can go a long way towards improving your own mental health, which will in turn help you be a better leader for your team.

Learn more about vulnerability and leadership

If you’re interested in learning more about how being vulnerable can improve your leadership capabilities, check out the full Central Line podcast episode featuring Todd Buchanan.

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