The dealbreaker on what makes a good leader

So here’s a question that most people have a strong feeling about, usually based on personal experience:

What makes a great leader?

Outside the obvious professional skills and experience required, most of us are likely to cite any number of the following characteristics as necessary qualities.

In fact, in every poll ever done on the subject of leadership, these attributes are always referenced:

  • Honesty
  • Humility
  • Integrity
  • Passion
  • Confidence
  • Commitment
  • Clarity
  • Decisiveness
  • Creativity
  • Focus
  • Positivity
  • Vision

But there’s one thing that’s rarely mentioned and it’s a leadership characteristic that has the power to be a dealbreaker when it comes to encouraging or hindering future success, both personally and professionally.

What is it?

A willingness to be vulnerable.

Now this very word often strikes fear into the hearts of many.

Vulnerability is the emotion we experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.

It means showing up, fully engaging and being seen when you can’t control the outcome. It’s the place of no guarantees.

To be clear, what I’m not talking about here is letting all facets of ourselves show.

Leadership vulnerability is not about exposing our deepest and darkest fears or, for want of a better expression, letting it all hang out.

It’s about being courageous in areas outside of our comfort zone.

This type of vulnerability might look like asking for help, calling an employee or colleague whose child is not well, taking responsibility for something that went wrong, or taking a leap of faith on an untested product, service or strategy.

It requires something that feels uncomfortable at best, and downright terrifying at worst; a willingness to fail, in full view of others, and learning from those experiences before we try again.

Outside of the obvious fear factor that comes with this approach, the reason many have a problem with this type of vulnerability is that it flies in the face of traditional wisdom.

We are taught that leaders should project an image of confidence, competence and authority, and never show weakness.

But there are two major problems with this perspective, which negatively impact remarkable and effective leadership.

Firstly, projecting a perfect, invincible image isn’t authentic.

Secondly, it doesn’t spur learning and growth.   

To the first point, much has been written on the subject of authentic leadership and for good reason.

The plain truth is that people feel more comfortable around those who are authentic and vulnerable.

Whether we are a boss, a colleague, an employee, a customer or any other type of stakeholder, because we can identify with those human qualities ourselves, it creates a stronger sense of connection between us and that leader.

Research has shown that this connection encourages heightened levels of engagement, commitment, trust, respect and forgiveness.

And that consequently produces increased output, higher profit margins and creates new generations of authentic leaders in turn.

To the second point, without vulnerability, we are confined to the realms of our comfort zone, where learning and growth is limited.

If we can’t show or admit to weaknesses, we don’t take the kind of calculated risks that might court failure, but might also increase creativity, innovation, output and, ultimately, success.

By contrast, if you create a space for “productive failure”, you are more likely to push the boundaries of personal and professional development, open doors to new opportunities, and deliver something bigger and better despite the risks.

So the bottom line is this.

Being vulnerable is the boldest act of business leadership.

It fuels the strongest relationships, can transform employee performance, and can put your personal and organisational success on steroids.

Those courageous enough to be real, and get comfortable with the risks of failure and failure itself, are the leaders we all remember; both for their impact on us personally, and their success. 

So ask yourself this. On a scale of one to ten, what level of vulnerability do you exhibit today, and is there room to move the needle?

Challenging yourself to step it up could just make all the difference.