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The Strength of Vulnerable Leadership: How showing your humanity can bring out the best in your team

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As the continent with the largest proportion of long-serving political leaders, Africa is accustomed to seeing a certain type of leadership: strong, confident, and unrelenting.

But research has shown that the most effective leaders, in politics and business, are willing to show more than unwavering strength. They practice altruism, forgiveness, fairness, and vulnerability—traits that often aren’t associated with tough leadership.

How do such “soft” approaches increase performance and grow a business? According to social scientists, such leadership engenders trust, loyalty, and optimism in teams.

When employees see a leader as vulnerable and authentic—as demonstrated through warmth, kindness, humility, and self-awareness—they resonate with the leader as a fellow human being. According to a Harvard study, this resonance activates the part of the brain related to positive emotion and human connection, both of which significantly contribute to employee morale and productivity.

Vulnerability, according to internationally renowned researcher Dr. Brené Brown, is defined as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” It is at the root of all human connection, and “is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”

While business leaders may worry that practicing vulnerability is a sign of weakness, the opposite is actually true. Dr. Brown says that vulnerability—such as admitting mistakes or taking a risk without a guaranteed outcome—requires immense courage.

Unsurprisingly, a leader who regularly demonstrates courage and authenticity is more likely to inspire the same in others. Nelson Mandela was widely respected for practicing leadership inspired by Ubuntu, the Nguni word meaning “the quality of being human.” This is similar to the African proverb: “A person is a person through other people.” The more humanity a leader displays and sees in others, the more effective he or she will be.

Practicing vulnerability does not require a leader to openly share every fear or concern, or to confess every shortcoming. According to the University of Stellenbosch Business School Management Review, “Rather, it is about being open to the ideas of others, accepting uncertain states and recognising your own limitations. Sharing vulnerability is an exercise of retrospection and self-awareness, which requires individuals to objectively view their own behaviour.”

Leaders who are willing to listen to others and recognise their own limits are better positioned to learn and grow. They are more likely to hire excellent team members with complementary skills and experience. They can ask for help when necessary and make better, wiser decisions.

Business leaders who refrain from showing any vulnerability, on the other hand, demand results through toughness and pressure. Studies show that this kind of leadership style only increases stress for workers—which, in the long run, lowers productivity and escalates employee turnover.

For leaders, the choice to be vulnerable isn’t easy. A study from the Center for Creative Leadership found that one of the greatest challenges for African leaders was “being able to look at ourselves, be vulnerable, and reflect on development areas.”

According to a recent Business Daily article, “We live in a world where ego gets attention but modesty gets results. Where arrogance makes headlines but humility makes a difference. Which means that all of us, as leaders or aspiring leaders, face questions of our own: Are we confident enough to stay humble? Are we strong enough to admit we don’t have all the answers?” 

At Kenyans Come Home, we are inspired by the courageous, confident leaders we work with, who are willing to admit their shortcomings while working hard to improve. They are the ones who will take their businesses, and Africa as a continent, to the next level.