It’s Time to Break the Negative Stigma Around Vulnerability

58% of people polled perceive vulnerability as authentic

95 percent of those polled believe they can learn more from a leader who exhibits vulnerability. Getty Images
Headshot of Jennifer DaSilva

Given its antiquated meaning, being vulnerable is seen as a sign of weakness. And yet, as I’ve worked closely with female brands through the past year, I’ve found myself being inspired by their unapologetic authenticity. It’s time we embrace why so many girl brands do it better: They’re not afraid to be vulnerable.

We’re at a turning point in what people are looking for from their leaders at work. Berlin Cameron recently partnered with Ellevate Network to gather insights around vulnerability. When asked how a leader who shows vulnerability on the job is perceived, the overwhelming response was that they’re authentic (58 percent) or relatable (37 percent). Only 4 percent thought it showed weakness. Not to mention, 96 percent of respondents felt that they could learn more from a leader who shows vulnerability than from one who does not.

The tide is already turning. It’s time to embrace vulnerability as a leader.

Vulnerability isn’t a bad word

Open. Humble. Brave. Authentic. When did these become negative?

We should be following people who embody these characteristics, not running away because their openness is intimidating. Being perfectly composed 100 percent of the time isn’t genuine, and it’s time to pull back that curtain.

The antiquated point of view is that emotion makes you appear like a less capable, composed leader, but if you don’t have a fire, why should your employees? According to Polly Rodriguez, CEO and co-founder of luxury sex toy company Unbound, “Yeah, I’m emotional, but I’m also the person who built this company.”

Own your feelings—you’re still the boss.

Authenticity is essential in the workplace

It’s the adage our mothers taught us: Don’t try to be someone you’re not.

“People are attracted to people who are real,” said Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. “People can sense when you’re not being genuine. It’s a trap many leaders fall into.”

Rather than act the way you think you’re “supposed” to act, behave in the way that is most natural to you. Your employees will thank you for it, and you’ll feel better operating without a facade.

Allows more openness with employees

If you’re open about making mistakes, your team won’t live in terror of the occasional misstep, and that gives them freedom to take initiative. We often expect our employees to act as we would, but if we can’t admit to being wrong or not having all the answers, why would anyone feel comfortable enough to do the same? Instead of finding fault in unveiled openness, encourage honesty and consideration.

It’s time we embrace why so many girl brands do it better: They’re not afraid to be vulnerable.

The Knot/XO Group’s co-founder Carley Roney noted that “being vulnerable is less hierarchical. It puts everyone in the position to put it on the line.”

Adopt a new management style

With the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, people are realizing that the old power dynamic isn’t working. As we look for more inclusive ways to run companies, vulnerability will play an even bigger role.

“More and more people are figuring out that they want to be in an environment of people that are accepting of them,” Kara Goldin, CEO of Hint Water, said. “It’s less about the initial phase of unveiling who wronged somebody [and is instead] about community and vulnerability.”

We must evolve to better fit the generations that require authenticity and empathy from their leaders, and there’s no time like the present. Any founder knows it takes experimenting to find the right path, and it’s rare to have a leader who can admit that they may not always have the answer. Let’s make the opposite true. Let’s make it the norm to have an open, honest leader—a leader who isn’t afraid of anything, not even of being vulnerable.

@jenbdasilva Jennifer DaSilva is president at Berlin Cameron.