Workplace Culture

The Power of Vulnerability in Leadership

By: Starling Minds

Last updated: May 1, 2023

For years and sometimes even decades, education leaders have silently shouldered the immense pressure they have at work. With an ever-increasing demand for classroom resources, student behavioural problems, and everyday crises, leaders are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. But according to a research study, this rise in exhaustion can lead to a breakdown in trust between school leaders and their staff, and the very culture of their school if not managed. 

To prevent a decline in their schools, some leaders may adopt an image of an all-knowing person in order to run their schools. They grow into their role with a fear of being perceived as weak. But what some leaders may not realize is that presenting an all-knowing persona is not effective leadership and will only keep them in a vicious cycle of isolation and exhaustion. By failing to acknowledge their own shortcomings and lack of knowledge in an area, they will not find the best solution and will stunt other voices in the process. A study has shown that this leadership style will evidently lead to a decline in trust, animosity among staff, and ultimately a dysfunctional working environment. 

In previous years, leadership styles like autocratic, democratic and transformational were a part of a Principal’s playbook, however in today’s post-pandemic world authentic and compassionate leadership is paving the way to better self-care for leaders and staff, and ultimately better student outcomes. But, it can be difficult to be more authentic when you are feeling burned out, as it may force us to be more open with our struggles before we are ready to share. We are here to help.

Common myths around vulnerability

At the heart of authentic, compassionate and effective leadership is accepting our own vulnerability; having humility, self-awareness, and courage to acknowledge our own imperfections. But according to Dr. Andrew Miki, Chief Science Officer and Clinical Psychologist at Starling Minds, we have a lot of misconceptions about vulnerability as a society.

  1. Vulnerability is a weakness: We’ve been conditioned to view vulnerability as a weakness, but it is actually a strength as it shows that we have the self-awareness and confidence to admit when we don’t know something and to therefore find people who do know the answer. 
  2. Vulnerability is a weapon against you: We think that people will take advantage of our vulnerability, but it can be a very effective leadership tool as it actually fosters understanding and compassion. 
  3. Confident people are not vulnerable: It’s actually confident leaders who are more willing to be vulnerable and admit when they do not have the answer to something. They are confident in who they are and willing to give up control of a conversation and let the best idea win. 

Benefits of vulnerability

Dr. Andrew Miki believes that being vulnerable is a skill. It requires people to use their emotional intelligence to determine when to be vulnerable in order to build trust within relationships, and even gain support. Vulnerability can help at three levels—work environment, among staff, and within leaders.

  1. Builds trust and fosters a safe environment for others to share their own vulnerability. If a leader feels like it is safe to share their experiences and struggles, it invites others to do the same. 
  2. Enhances interpersonal trust among leaders and staff and thus improves learning outcomes. For example, when teachers feel safe asking for help and collaborating with others, they can open up opportunities to enhance their teaching and ultimately improve learning opportunities for students.
  3. Encourages leaders to reflect on their own vulnerability, which is a critical aspect of their self-awareness. It’s the first step which would then allow them to develop the skill of being vulnerable with others effectively. 

A drastic shift in thinking around vulnerability and leadership is needed within education. Leaders need to recognize that making mistakes is an inherent part of learning and effective leadership. It is also a great tool to cultivate trust, openness, compassion, and community among staff. 

How to embrace your vulnerability

According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, there are six steps to becoming a more open, vulnerable leader for yourself and others:

  1. Recognize your own vulnerability: Acknowledge your own vulnerability as it will help you be more aware of your own feelings, thoughts, and emotions. It will also help you build the tools and skills you need to embrace your imperfections and that of others.
  2. Take ownership of mistakes: It takes strength and courage to admit your mistake and take ownership of it which actually increases trust and credibility. If you are willing to acknowledge your mistakes as a leader and learn from them, others will follow suit and be more willing to 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: Part of being a leader is to always welcome continuous learning and empower others to do the same. Sharing your own learnings and challenges will help people realize that making mistakes is not something to be afraid of, but rather an instrumental part of the learning process.
  4. Recognize, acknowledge, and respect others: Acknowledge when others may be feeling more vulnerable and respect them for having the strength and courage to speak up. Encouraging openness means creating a workplace that is open, honest, and good for people’s growth. 
  5. Ask for and receive help from others: Asking for help is one of the most important tools leaders can use. It shows that a leader is willing to trust others and share their power. As leaders release power to others, it empowers them to step up and strengthen their leadership capabilities in the school. It allows you to share the responsibility of leadership, allowing you the space to practice self-care and lower your levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout.
  6. Instill confidence in yourself as a leader: It’s important to be open about your mistakes and ask for help while instilling confidence in your staff as a competent leader. This includes taking control when situations arise, and upholding your responsibility to keep others engaged at work and confident in their abilities. It can be somewhat of a balancing act, but at the core of it is about building and promoting trust through your daily interactions with staff, students, parents, and the larger school community. 

Harnessing vulnerability can be a life changer for leaders, but it can be hard to navigate on your own. Research has shown that we tend to overestimate the risks of being vulnerable and underestimate the benefits it gives us as humans. But by embracing it and giving yourself permission to be vulnerable to yourself and others, you will usher in a new and essential form of leadership that is much needed in schools.

Starling Minds

Starling Minds™ is a digital mental health platform that reduces absence and disability costs by delivering immediate, unlimited, and personalized online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Developed by leading psychologists, Starling’s digital therapy is powered by an expert system that emulates the processes and practices of human-guided therapy to remove the greatest barriers preventing employees from accessing affordable and effective mental health care—cost, access, and stigma.

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