It’s true, most people wouldn’t identify their principal or school leader as “vulnerable.” Leaders are generally depicted as knowledgeable, infallible, and in control. Vulnerability, in comparison, is often equated with ignorance, weakness, and failure. However, recent research in school and business leadership suggests that the image of the all-knowing leader is problematic. Believe it or not, vulnerability is an essential component of effective leadership.
To be vulnerable means to be open and honest, acknowledging one’s own mistakes, inviting questions and feedback, and responding nondefensively to questions and challenges. This demands stepping out of your comfort zone, often disclosing your beliefs and actions for critical evaluation. By showing such courage, leaders signal trust in others and indicate their own trustworthiness, which can build more trusting relationships.
Imagine a teacher with a group of underachieving students. The teacher feels she is failing these students in her class, but believes she has tried everything she knows. In whom would she trust to disclose her failure? Would she turn to the leader who proclaimed in the last staff meeting that failure is not an option, someone unmoved and seemingly infallible in the face of challenge? Or would she turn to the leader who acknowledges their own weaknesses, who takes responsibility when mistakes happen, and who acknowledges failure as an inherent part of learning?
When leaders show vulnerability, they can promote an organizational culture in which mistakes and opinions are openly discussed rather than avoided out of fear of embarrassment or reprimand. In a culture that accepts vulnerability, problems can be discussed more thoroughly, and more information is available on which to base effective decisions and problem-solving. An organizational culture like this opens up the space to be more inventive and creative, as people feel more comfortable to share ideas freely because the fear of being reproached is minimized.
Trust Leads to Teamwork
Research from the Harvard Business School in Boston reveals that team leaders who acknowledged their own fallibility—and emphasized collaborative problem-solving and teamwork—had team members who were more comfortable speaking up about observations, concerns, and questions. This led to team members implementing change more successfully and working more effectively. Meanwhile, a study in Chicago schools showed how high-trust schools could effectively implement reform and increase student achievement. Teachers in these schools engaged in collaborative decision-making, took risks by experimenting with new practices, and went the extra mile to help students. In comparison, in low-trust schools, resistance to change was common and improvement was limited.
We examined the extent to which educational leaders show vulnerability. Interestingly, only a small minority of leaders in our study said they were willing to reveal their own vulnerability and responsibilities in conversations with others when trying to solve important on-the-job problems. Furthermore, while educational leaders were typically strong in advocating their own viewpoints and being in control, they were far less skilled in listening to others, inquiring into others’ opinions genuinely and openly, and giving up some sense of control over the conversation, thus making themselves more vulnerable.
It seems that a shift in thinking about vulnerability and leadership is needed in education. Educators need to recognize that making mistakes is an inherent part of learning and leadership, and that’s important if we are to shift thinking about vulnerability. Consider that showing vulnerability can be seen as a sign of strength and an opportunity to learn. Follow these six steps to becoming a more open, vulnerable leader.
1. Recognize Your Own Vulnerability
Recognizing your own fallibility and vulnerability helps in understanding others’ feelings of vulnerability. Everyone is fallible, and even the most experienced leaders will at some point trip up, make a mistake, or not know the answer to a question. Admitting that you’re not perfect opens you up to connect with others who aren’t perfect, either.
2. Admit Mistakes and Take Responsibility
It often seems easier to ignore a problem, point fingers, or let others deal with it instead of taking responsibility for an error. It takes strength and courage to discuss mistakes in a way that has the potential to increase trust and credibility. If you are willing to acknowledge your mistakes as a leader and learn from these, others will be more likely to openly share and discuss difficulties and concerns, meaning that problems are more likely to be resolved quickly and effectively.
3. Share Your Own Learning and Challenges
We are all learning. Whether you’re a beginner or a more experienced leader, there are always things that we have not faced before, things that are changing, or things that are new. As you share where you stand in your own learning, your challenges and sense of vulnerability can help others in their learning. Such transparency may also foster understanding of why things might be less than ideal.
4. Recognize, Acknowledge, and Respect Others’ Feelings of Vulnerability
As you become more open about your own learning and feelings of vulnerability, others will be more likely to share their opinions, uncertainties, and feelings. While it takes courage for leaders to show vulnerability, it can take immense courage for teachers and staff to discuss mistakes and share feelings. Effective leaders acknowledge that others might feel vulnerable and respect them for having the courage to speak up. Encouraging more openness means creating an environment that is open, honest, and conducive to individual and collective growth.
5. Ask for and Receive Help From Others
Asking for help is often perceived as a weakness; however, it is important. Asking for and receiving help from others signals that a leader is willing to share power and that they trust others to contribute. Requesting help and sharing power gives staff the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way. This has a domino effect: As you release power to others, it empowers them to step up and strengthen their leadership capabilities in the school. In the end, you’re all sharing the responsibility for leadership.
6. Maintain Others’ Confidence in Yourself as a Leader
It’s worth mentioning that while it is important that leaders be open about mistakes and ask others for help, they also need to instill confidence in their staff by being competent in leading the school. Take control when situations warrant it, and uphold your responsibility to keep others engaged and confident. This demands somewhat of a balancing act—both sharing one’s vulnerability and providing others with a sense of confidence.
Effective leaders need to build trust within the wider school community—staff, students, and families. Through showing vulnerability, you can take a step toward establishing more trusting relationships. As you promote and create a more trusting school environment, you’re more likely to implement change successfully, to bring people together, and to solve problems more efficiently.
Frauke Meyer, PhD, MEd, is a lecturer in the School of Learning, Development, and Professional Practice and on the faculty of the department of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.