When it comes to athletes, we talk quite a bit about the concept of “mental toughness” – the idea that without a hearty attitude and our fair share of fortitude, our physical skills can only carry us so far in competition.
This idea crosses into most aspects of our cultural understanding of leadership. Whether on the field or in the conference room, high-performing people are expected to be consistently energetic and nearly unshakeable.
But mental toughness is a largely-misinterpreted concept. Because instead of emphasizing genuine, sustainable mental health practices, we tend to encourage leaders – intentionally or not – to shy away from any kind of “weakness.”
And that includes asking for help or even admitting they need it.
It’s healthy to ask for help!
High-performing people reach levels of success, competition, and challenge that comparatively few others do. This means top-performing athletes, high-performing executives, or anyone else at the top of their field naturally have fewer options when it comes to peers and mentors who can offer perspective and support.
And when you’ve been conditioned to believe asking for help is a sign of weakness, you’ll likely try to keep pushing through. Many leaders wind up feeling isolated and become prone to burnout, illness, or even physical injury.
Embracing Vulnerability as a Leader
Mental toughness can be misunderstood as never asking for or admitting you need help – but in reality, practicing mindfulness and embracing vulnerability is what will actually allow you to consistently outperform yourself and push the limits of your performance.
In recent years, the idea of embracing vulnerability in leadership has been popularized largely due to the work of Brené Brown, a researcher and professor at the University of Houston. And it might sound counterintuitive; after all, we often use the word “vulnerable” to refer to actual weaknesses – areas of our performance or our business that can be easily exploited or derailed.
But when we apply the concept to our leadership persona, it takes on another meaning entirely.
Vulnerable Leaders Are More Successful
Incorporating vulnerability into your leadership practice doesn’t mean leaving yourself open to potential threats or embracing “weakness.” It doesn’t mean you need to bear all your secrets, either.
“Vulnerability is the best measure of courage,” Brown says, and it’s true – because a vulnerable leader is one who turns away from rigid hierarchies in favor of authentic connection with those around them. And that can be scary.
Here’s why you should do it anyway.
Shame holds us back.
For high-performing people, shame is often a lack of confidence. We feel insecure admitting we don’t have the answer or that someone else may be better able to perform a task or oversee a project than we are. When we lean into that shame, we ultimately wind up spending a lot of time and energy on it – and make ourselves less effective as leaders.
Innovation and creativity thrive on vulnerability.
Innovation and creativity are crucial to problem-solving, but if you’re too afraid to risk failure, then you’ll be less likely to try new things. A vulnerable leader doesn’t need a crystal ball – they look to and trust their team to provide help, insight, ideas, and specialized skills. They are confident that the sum of their team’s whole is greater than its parts, and they are comfortable trying new things1.
The best leaders are emotionally intelligent.
When we’re self-aware, we can learn to name our emotions with an increased level of granularity. This can help us better identify our thoughts, feelings, and needs. It can bring a quicker end to acute stress and anxiety and help ward off burnout, helping us make better decisions and choices because of it.
Emotionally intelligent leaders are more successful because they’re more in-tune with what’s going on – both for themselves and for their teams.
Your team will show up more consistently.
Vulnerable leaders forge stronger, more genuine connections with the people around them. They know their teammates better and can more easily recognize, identify, and adequately troubleshoot challenges that arise. That sense of relationship, care, and community is what gets people showing up and performing at their best every day.
Vulnerable leaders build better teams.
Successful teamwork means understanding the truth behind the old adage “a rising tide lifts all boats.” And good leadership means recognizing the talents on your team and utilizing them in a way that brings about the best result. A leader who feels shame over their own weaknesses – who doesn’t embrace vulnerability – will struggle to see and value the abilities and skills of others. For this reason, they’ll be unable to build a truly successful team.
Incorporating Vulnerability as a Leader
It’s not always easy to bring vulnerability into your leadership practice, especially if you aren’t used to it.
But there are a few ways you can get started right now:
Begin a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Take time during your day to stop and take note of where you are, how you’re feeling – even simply what you’re seeing in front of you. This can work to ground you and reset your nervous system.
Kick shame to the curb. It’s easy to beat ourselves up for making mistakes, not being “the best,” or struggling to find the right answer. But perfectionism doesn’t pay! So when you find yourself going down this road, remind yourself that the best leaders and most successful people in the world aren’t doing it alone. Everyone benefits from the help of those around them.
See a therapist. Self-awareness is key to vulnerability2. A qualified clinical psychologist can help you identify patterns and thought processes that might be holding you back. They can help you achieve greater personal success, stronger relationships, and better leadership abilities.
Vulnerability Leads to Better Connection
We don’t connect with each other as fellow professionals, athletes, or even high-performers. We connect with each other, at every level, as fellow human beings. And at its core, vulnerability is simply being human.
When we embrace vulnerability as leaders, we allow those connections to happen and make room for maximum success!