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Leaders Aren’t Superheroes. Here’s Why Asian Leaders Need to Show Vulnerability

Leaders who aren’t afraid to open up and be human create a more collaborative and accepting workplace.

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BY Heather R. Huhman - 10 Jan 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Leaders are humans. They have feelings. They make mistakes. They have limitations. But somehow, even leaders with decades of experience forget this. They put up guards and act like they have to be perfect. In the long run, it ends up hurting them and their company.

Barry Kaplan and Jeff Manchester are co-authors of The Power of Vulnerability, a book about leadership vulnerability.

"Most leaders pressure themselves to have all of the answers," said Kaplan. "They feel it's their responsibility as a leader to direct and lead and to be 'large and in charge'."

The two men believe there's a more effective way to run an organization.

"You lead by being vulnerable," added Manchester. "You can come to the team and say, 'I don't have the answer, let's figure this out together.'"

By taking this approach, you open up new opportunities for your team. Employees are able to step up when you fall down. Everyone has the power to work more collaboratively.

But knowing that doesn't make it any easier to let your guard down. Here are three things to remember when you're tempted to put on a tough face as a leader:

1. There is no trust without emotion.

Not too long ago, leaders were expected to have a separation from their employees. They worked from a penthouse office and sent directives down to the people below.

But, organizational structures have flattened out. In order for a company to be innovative and agile, leaders need to work right next to their employees.

And that means establishing a relationship built on trust. For two people to trust each other, there has to be vulnerability.

"I am a very emotional leader," said Wesley Middleton, author of Violent Leadership and co-founder of the accounting firm MiddletonRaines+Zapata. "I used to hide that and believed that maintaining my composure was most important."

Yet, once Middleton began sharing his emotions with employees, he was able to connect with his team in a more empathetic way.

"By being more vulnerable, the level of trust is higher and you are humanized to the people around you," he went on to say.

Even if you're not an overly-emotional person, find ways to show your team you care. Ask them about their lives and the challenges they're facing. Then, share appropriate information about what's worrying you. For instance, if there's a deadline you're worried about meeting, let them know. This will help make you more relatable.

2. Egos run rampant.

When people act as if they're invincible, it starts to go to their heads. When you have multiple leaders with strong personalities, this can quickly lead to a toxic environment. Team members begin to try to prove themselves and end up in a lose-lose competition.

Like many leaders, CEO of email platform Cordial, Jeremy Swift, felt it hard to admit when he didn't have all the answers. But this idea of impermeability is a facade.

"I've consistently found that it's through the admission that you're imperfect that people draw closer and step up," he said. "Being a vulnerable and authentic leader not only creates a better you, but it has a sustainable ripple effect."

If you're not willing to be vulnerable, then no one will be. This creates a workplace that isn't built on connections, but rather competitions. Admit your defeats. Celebrate those who developed solutions. This will create a culture where it doesn't matter who wins, but rather that the team does.

3. It's good for your self-esteem.

Often, we forget the nuances between words. With 'vulnerable,' for example, we assume it means to have imperfections. And having imperfections lowers the value of something. So many leaders worry that being vulnerable will make them worth less. But in reality, being able to admit your shortcomings is a powerful thing.

"I think of vulnerability as an element of humility. But humility isn't about thinking you are worthless," said CEO of the project management software company Workfront, Alex Shootman. "Humility is believing you have great worth, great talent, great power, great ability and using all of that to help and serve everyone else."

When you find yourself in a situation where you don't know what to do, take a step back. Instead of worrying about your own faults, focus on the strengths of others. Lift them up so they can succeed and reach their full potential. Even if you didn't come up with the solution, feel good about the fact that you support those who did.

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