The time when a leader needed to look tough and outright cold-blooded on every occasion has gone. Nowadays, people expect leaders to show different qualities, among which self-awareness, empathy and integrity are appreciated. But what about vulnerability? Would most people be comfortable, even today, with the idea of a leader showing signs of weakness or doubt? Moreover, how can vulnerability become a strength in ever-changing and challenging environments?
To better understand how leadership dynamics are changing in the 21st century, we have asked two experts in the realm of modern management. Professor Kerstin Alfes has studied employee engagement, overqualification and volunteering for years and teaches organisational behaviour and human resource management at ESCP Business School. Denise Banks-Grasedyck is a recognised professional coach and change catalyst that has explored the question of leadership, and moreover, as she calls it, “legacy-worthy leadership” for many years.
What is expected from a good leader today?
To set the ground and try to answer this question, we first have to consider what the term “leadership” encompasses. Indeed, different kinds of leadership styles exist, and it is well-known that at least five different types are commonly described in the literature, from authoritarian leadership to transformational leadership, which is the type that might resonate most with the views our experts have on the matter.
For Kerstin Alfes, for example, “leadership is about having a goal, an objective we want to reach by nurturing individual strengths. A good leader takes individuals as they are, looks at their strengths rather than at their weaknesses and combines different people into a successful recipe. In the end, it is the differences of everyone and the complementarity of each ingredient that help reach success.” Denise Banks-Grasedyck agrees, adding: “A lot of things are expected from leaders today and the mix of competencies is changing at a rapid pace. Being a good leader also means holding space for volatility, uncertainty, and complexity. In order to lead, you have to keep people focused on potential opportunities while helping them accept the certainty of change.”
A good leader takes individuals as they are, looks at their strengths rather than at their weaknesses and combines different people into a successful recipe.Prof. Kerstin Alfes
And indeed, as the world around us changes, leaders are asked to be fast to adapt and to comply with the needs expressed by the people who put them in charge. In that sense, some qualities are required for a leader to assert their authority. “In terms of behaviour, having a moral compass is crucial. You have to walk the talk and be accountable. Show some understanding and empathy in your individual interactions as well,” advises Kerstin Alfes. For Denise Banks-Grasedyck, a couple of things have always been important in terms of leadership and are meant to stay: “Integrity, humility, discipline are key. If leaders can embrace these qualities, a lot of things will fall into place.”
In order to lead, you have to keep people focused on potential opportunities while helping them accept the certainty of change.Denise Banks-Grasedyck, Certified Professional Executive and Team Coach, Trainer, Speaker
Vulnerability and leadership: two false enemies?
But what does vulnerability have to do with being able to convey a vision, demonstrate integrity and empathy, and motivate people to reach a common goal? Part of the answer lies in the fact that great leaders are relatable and authentic. “To embrace vulnerability means fully showing up as your authentic self and being visible in your strength and greatness but also in your fears, doubts and challenges. To do that successfully, you have to know yourself and accept yourself in every situation. This will give you a lot of leverage,” explains Denise Banks-Grasedyck.
And in terms of management, agreeing to be fallible will also be a great asset, as Kerstin Alfes demonstrates: “Vulnerability is contrasting, compared to how we used to see leadership. But being vulnerable is also about not pretending that I know how to do something when I don’t. It is about understanding that as a leader I have a role to fulfil, but that I do not need to have answers to all questions. Instead, I am OK to rely on others’ knowledge and competencies.” By accepting their imperfections, leaders can show humility, which is known to be correlated with better error management. Humble people are also more prone to learn from others, which will create a favourable climate for teamwork and cooperation towards higher results.
To embrace vulnerability means fully showing up as your authentic self and being visible in your strength and greatness but also in your fears, doubts and challenges.Denise Banks-Grasedyck
How to work towards greater leadership through enhanced authenticity
Knowing the benefits of agreeing to vulnerability as a leader, one might wonder how to foster this quality. What does it take to be authentically vulnerable? Our experts have answers.
For Kerstin Alfes, authentic leadership does not come as a set of skills, but rather as a mindset: “I am an authentic leader when I can reflect on my strengths and show self-awareness. This is not something that comes off as a skill. It is about having the right mindset. It takes some courage to be authentic and vulnerable, we have to make people fully aware of that.” A vision Denise Banks-Grasedyck agrees with, as she points out: “Even superheroes have points of vulnerability. If you look at authenticity as a skill, it closes the door to some people who may think they just were not born with it. But if you teach others that it is all about adopting a certain mindset, you work towards promoting more authenticity in general.”
I am an authentic leader when I can reflect on my strengths and show self-awareness. This is not something that comes off as a skill, it is about having the right mindset.Kerstin Alfes
So how can you foster more authenticity in yourself, and inspire others to do the same? Where does the boundary start between vulnerability and over-sharing?
For Denise Banks-Grasedyck, storytelling is the most powerful tool: “When people reflect on moments that had an impact on their existence, they get to deconstruct what propelled them to a new state. Moments of vulnerability are common and acknowledging that through storytelling gives people another way of looking at experiences that they might have otherwise put in a closet forever. Drawing the line between sharing your personal experience and your private life is very important. Share stories and lessons about what you’ve experienced that can be relatable to people, but be thoughtful of what is too private to be shared.”
And Kerstin Alfes added: “In my class, I try to get across that a leader needs to understand him/herself first. A lot of this is about self-reflection. Being able to master complex and disruptive changes, and still have trust in themselves, is key. We’ve had a pandemic and a war impacting organisations and supply chains. It is normal to have concerns. In that context, great leadership will be about building resilience and having trust – in oneself and also one’s followers.”