Leadership: Showing Weakness and Vulnerability Can Help You Gain Influence

by on July 20th, 2011
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I was on my first day at a new job. I had taken my first senior leadership position at a large hospital in Louisiana. I had not slept the night before as I obsessed over what to say and how to present myself to instill confidence in my abilities. A confidence, I can tell you, that I did not have. Oh, I looked the part. I had on my best power suit that was complimented with a bold tie. I had spent an extraordinary amount of time shaving and fixing my hair. Not John Edwards time, but still more than usual for me. Despite the nice paint job I had preformed on myself, my undercarriage was shaky. I had met the five people who would be reporting to me during my interview process. During the interview process, I had mustered a level of confidence worthy of only the very naive. I was selected out of a pool of very able candidates. I imagined that I had to continue my level of confidence into the job, but I did not feel it at the moment.

We were freshly seated around a table in a forgettable conference room. We had said our hellos and shared a little conversation about my move, the weather, and my life. Then came a natural pause during the introductions. They all quieted and gave me their full attention. It was my time to shine. It was my time to take the reigns and provide leadership to my young colts. Instead, I dropped my shoulders. My head feel with my gaze to the top of the table, “I am sorry gang, but I am feeling a bit over my head. I want to do a good job. I think I am able, but right now, I don’t believe it. I am having serious doubts about my leadership skills at the moment.” I raised my head, my eyes jumping around the table.

In unison, the tension dropped from their faces. Their postures relaxed and a small giggle began to chase around the room.

I smiled weakly.

The beamed back.

I sat a little taller.

They laughed in concert. Then the angels sang individual hymns, “Phew.” “We were so nervous about you starting,” ” You were so confident on your interview.” “We thought you were going to come in here with little appreciation for us,” and so on.

I look back at that initial meeting often. After 15 years of successful senior leader roles, I continue to use it as a guide for every new leadership role that I take. I use it as an example of how humility and vulnerability can be leadership qualities. Showing weakness can be a great leadership skill. As skill, it needs to be practiced and developed. I believe that as leaders, when we display authentic vulnerability, our influence increases.

I make it a practice to share my limitations and weaknesses with others. I find that by “going first” I create an environment that is open for honest discussion. Time is saved as barriers to sharing and constructive action are removed.

I suggest that the next time you feel vulnerable, tell others. Be authentic and I am sure you will appreciate a similar experience as I have repeated time and time again.

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