The Importance of Vulnerability in Leadership and Communication: 2 Leaders Share Their Thoughts
In recent articles, a lead strategist of our team, Nichole Kelly, shared the importance of vulnerability in leadership with a tough event in her life and some lessons on improving vulnerability. This time, we have two guests who weigh in on the benefits of being vulnerable in marketing, share examples from their lives, and help us understand how leaders can create safe environments. First, we have Tamsen Webster, a keynote speaker, message strategist, and TEDx producer. Second, we have Heather Dopson, Community Builder at GoDaddy.
Why is vulnerability important for marketing leaders?
Here’s what Tamsen has to say:
Vulnerability is important for leaders because it provides a point of open—and, more importantly, HUMAN—connection. If you’re more vulnerable as a leader, you’re much more likely to see and identify with that vulnerability in your team, clients, and customers. That insight provides an additional perspective that shows you what others may be going through, what effect your own actions may have, and how the two intersect.
Heather also weighed in:
The underlying theme in every marketing presentation I’ve given over the past few years is “Be Human.” This applies to everything in marketing from campaigns to leadership. Gone are the days of ego-driven bravado where showing any sign of weakness is frowned upon. The more self-aware and relatable leaders are, the stronger the opportunity to build meaningful relationships with those around them. We are all more alike than we are different; the sooner we all understand that, the better off we’ll all be.
It’s important to understand the difference between expressing vulnerability and attention-seeking behavior. The latter is destructive and creates more barriers. The former is a demonstration of strength, not weakness. True vulnerability delivers positive results and has the potential to solve problems.
Daring to be vulnerable: How they demonstrated vulnerability in leadership
Tamsen shared her own experience with being vulnerable as a leader in marketing:
I always took, and still take, a “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” approach to leadership and management. For example, I established a “closed door” policy with both my team and my managers.
That may sound a bit contrarian, but here’s how it worked: Behind that closed door, we were allowed to express anything to the other person. My team could call me on inconsistent or critical behavior. I could express my concerns to my bosses about an imminent decision. That meant we all had to be vulnerable at some level, as we were all opening ourselves up to hearing and truly listening to information that could be uncomfortable.
What made it work was what happened back outside of the closed door. Once we had our closed door exchange, the “normal” hierarchy would return. I would support my managers in whatever decision they ultimately made (because I knew they at least understood my position, even if they didn’t ultimately agree) and my team would do the same with me (for the same reason).
Heather shares how vulnerability has helped her to grow as a professional and to develop more meaningful relationships with people:
Social media as a whole is a megaphone for people’s beautiful, happy things. Often, when scrolling through all that, we forget that people still have cloudy days, even if they aren’t showing it to the world. As someone who travels and speaks a lot, I am somewhat in the public eye in my industry and to those who choose to follow me on social media. I’m fortunate that I get to do a lot of cool things, but it was important for me to share the not-so-cool things happening in my life, too. I want people to know that no matter how amazing a person’s life looks on all the socials, everyone, EVERYONE has shit. And if anyone tells you otherwise, they’re either a liar or a sociopath.
I started openly sharing my challenges with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I did live videos after three-day events that left me exhausted and talked about how tired I was before moving on to the next event. I wrote a long post about making peace with the monster in my head as a way to show people that they’re not alone. Each time I openly share something like that, I get countless comments and private messages thanking me for being so open. When I meet others in person after we’ve only known each other in the online space, they feel like they know me better, and that only enhances the relationship-building opportunity.
Is there a risk in living my life openly? Absolutely. I sometimes wonder if I’ve missed out on other opportunities because I share these things. But the truth is that I’ve booked a lot of podcast interviews, speaking gigs, and writing requests because of it.
How you can create a safe environment for vulnerability
Tamsen’s advice is rooted in her experience:
The “closed door” policy mentioned above is the best way I found as a leader to create safe environments. It worked at multiple organizations (five different ones before I became an entrepreneur), and it’s still the policy I have with my business manager.
Heather’s advice is to be an authentic leader, not a perfectionist:
When people feel comfortable, they share ideas more openly. They create deeper bonds and are more invested in the work they do. Leaders need to be the example for vulnerability instead of keeping people at arm’s length. Feigning stoicism and perfection often has the opposite effect, deepening the wound of distrust. After I failed to deliver against a deadline once, the best boss I had ever worked for said to me, “It isn’t about blame; it’s about cause.” That statement alone shifted my perspective from being fearful of punishment to understanding that he was willing to work alongside me to resolve the issue.
Trust in a leader improves performance. How can a leader expect anyone to trust them when they’ve manufactured a facade of perfection and authority?
We tend to shy away from vulnerability for fear of its repercussions and the judgment of our peers, but these experiences suggest that it may be the key to building stronger relationships.
Tamsen used vulnerability-based leadership to create a culture that is more transparent and attuned to each person’s problems and opinions. This environment encourages open communication and allows for ideas and perspectives to be voiced rather than to be silenced by political battles or favoritism.
Heather has used vulnerability in her social media posts to make sure people know that she has struggles and isn’t as perfect as she looks. She has shown that this transparency helps build trust and creates teams that are more comfortable sharing with each other.
If you learn how to be vulnerable in relationships, you can learn how to be vulnerable in business. It begins with one individual showing and proving that it’s okay to be uncomfortable if it means imparting a valuable perspective.
How’s your current state of vulnerability in your organization?