Is it time to reassess what good leadership means, and to redefine a few of its attributes?

Leadership is an intangible. It is therefore hardly surprising there is a multitude of opinions and views on what attributes make a good leader, and various facets of leadership. There have been several conversations around vulnerability in leadership, and whether it is a sign of weakness or of strength and confidence.

Erik van de Loo, Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the business school INSEAD, believes expressing vulnerability is a sign of character and of courage. “The courage to act and express yourself in line with your deepest thoughts and feelings makes for an authentic leader,” he says.

Being authentic also makes a leader more predictable. “Because now I understand this is how you feel, this is how you think and how you act in line with your deepest convictions, considerations and feelings, and that creates a deeper level of trust,” van de Loo says, explaining that knowing what to expect of a person helps to establish trust.

Leadership in the business world is as much about managing people as it is about managing strategy. It goes beyond just worrying about the bottom line. Beyond the numbers, empathy and support have come to be critical attributes of effective leadership — humans experience life about 30 per cent rationally and 70 per cent emotionally, after all.

The role of vulnerability in leadership

Perceptions of leadership have long been rooted in public personas and an inadequate understanding of strength and confidence. Van de Loo, who is also Programme Director at INSEAD’s Executive Master in Change (EMC), says that irrespective of how vulnerability in leadership is perceived, good leaders are those “with the capacity to open up and show something of themselves that might make them vulnerable — and probably does — in the eyes of others around them”.

Embracing vulnerability indicates a leader is ready to open up to others — be it individuals or a group of people.

But doing so comes with the risk of a negative backlash. Predicting others’ responses to vulnerability at the start is difficult, and there is a chance that when a leader opens up, he or she may be seen by some as being weak, says van de Loo.

According to Rohit Kumar, a Human Resources Director and an INSEAD EMC alumnus, feeling a sense of vulnerability is usually associated with doing something big. “It's only when you're actually going out and doing something that is against the course of things, [when] you're challenging something, [when] you are disrupting what has already been happening. I think those are the points when you're going to feel vulnerable.”

In other words, vulnerability is a strength, because it indicates a leader is willing to go against the grain, get out of his or her comfort zone and take risks.

Vulnerable Leaders

Transparency begets trust

Additionally, by expressing vulnerability themselves, leaders allow those on their teams to be vulnerable (and comfortable), resulting in a happier workplace.

Changes in the nature of work are resulting in a growing number of conversations relating to anxiety, stress and emotional wellbeing, particularly as workers are required to reskill or acquire new skills to stay relevant in the new economy.

This underscores the importance of leaders who can connect with their employees and provide them with support by being compassionate and empathetic.

Sharon Ow, INSEAD EMC alumna and Leadership Development Director, says “the unique thing about vulnerability is when you start with yourself, your actions and your words actually invite other people to be vulnerable as well”.

This is important because higher levels of transparency contribute to greater trust at any organisation. A leader unafraid to express vulnerability is seen as authentic, someone the team can trust and confide in. Kumar alludes to this when he says it is important for employees to be able to raise their hands and ask for help when needed, and to be “in a position where we are vulnerable and we’re saying, ‘Hey, we need some help’”.

Showing empathy and compassion earns leaders the trust and respect of their teams. And for those more geared towards the hard numbers, there is a business case for compassion and empathy too — 96 per cent of employees believe showing empathy is an important way to advance employee retention.

Can one learn to be vulnerable?

An openness to being vulnerable requires being able to break the barrier of fear of judgement and be authentic. Above all else, it requires a change in mindset.

Yulia Pellegrin, a Human Resources Consultant INSEAD EMC alumna, says for her, vulnerability is “accepting who I am and accepting what I feel” and “not being ashamed of that”.

Vulnerability in leadership is something INSEAD emphasises too. Van de Loo says the focus at INSEAD is on how an individual brings all of himself or herself into a leadership role — with all one’s limitations. “How do you leverage your limitations and your vulnerabilities such that they contribute to your leadership?” he asks.

Additionally, van de Loo says INSEAD helps leaders become more self-aware, encouraging them to look within to explore different aspects of themselves.

“What experiences have shaped you, and how can you bring those into your role as a leader?”

A new leadership agenda

This is perhaps the perfect moment to re-evaluate attitudes to leadership and what makes a good leader. Most of us will say a good leader is a strong leader, but what is a strong leader? It is increasingly clear a strong leader is someone who is not afraid of being authentic — and in the process, vulnerable — and is someone with oodles of empathy and compassion.

There is growing acceptance that it is okay to not be “superman or superwoman”, Sten Estrup, president Asia at AAK and an INSEAD EMC alumnus, says. But by accepting that as a leader, “you also invite vulnerability to come into how you lead, and this will greatly impact how your team members engage with you, because you then say, ‘It’s okay’”.

There has been a mindset shift, says van de Loo, who is of the view that most people now immediately recognise and identify vulnerability as “very authentic” behaviour.

Strong leadership is essential as the world strives to build back better. And as we look forward, an increasingly standout ingredient in this cocktail of leadership attributes is vulnerability, with a little dash of humanity and empathy.