I was messaged over the weekend by someone in my network who was looking for a new job. It started as a simple conversation. She was having a tough time with her manager. According to her manager ‘you can’t be a strong leader here if you show vulnerability – it’s weak’.

I do need to add a little more context here. Aside from the boss, she was also going through a really tough time away from work, due to domestic violence from an ex-partner. At the same time, she was holding it together at work and her team’s performance was the highest it had ever been.

I immediately went into support mode – How can I help? We explored the protection she might put in place at home, looking after her own wellbeing, and then we moved on to the conversation about a new job. To me the personal support is far more important than career advice when you receive a message like that.

Once we had the important stuff out of the way, it did make me think. Vulnerability – a weakness? Really? I must have missed the memo on that one.

What is vulnerability?

I’ve always seen vulnerability as about being real. No one is perfect and being vulnerable is owning that. It breaks down barriers between the glossy veneer vs the real gritty aspects of human nature. No one has a perfect life and its often in the creases and folds you find that real character is born.

We all have those life events that create our sense of identity and make us who we truly are. My colleague Rhonda wrote about this a few weeks back:

Where we are relaxed and comfy to turn up as we really are. We don’t need a ‘toxic positivity speech bubble’ above our heads 24/7. We can be lost, confused and where necessary, we can lean on others and know they’ll catch us. Just like we catch them”.

My personal story of vulnerability

My most vulnerable moment came immediately after returning from maternity leave. My son – just 6 months old at the time – was rushed to hospital. From that day, we spent many months navigating the medical system while my husband and I maintained our full-time work roles. We had no family support in Australia. Instead, it was my fantastic team and colleagues that wrapped their arms around us and supported us.

From food parcels and fruit baskets, to preparing ministerial briefings and assisting with emergency warning systems, I could not have asked for a more generous and caring team. You see, they viewed this disruption as being a time when they could support us, just as I had supported them. It was never viewed as a weakness. Just as real life.

As a team, we had always had each other’s backs. I would go into bat for them many times over. They saw this moment as an opportunity to care. Person to person. Human to human. It not only brought me closer to the team, but also to the whole organisation.

Can a leader be vulnerable?

When we see a leader being vulnerable, it reminds us that they’re human. It gives us permission to also share our own reality. We feel more confident to be honest with someone is willing to show that they can be sad, feel stupid, or to need help.

Brene Brown puts it beautifully.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy courage, empathy, and creativity.”

While it can be uncomfortable to admit vulnerability, as it pushes you out of your comfort zone, it can also be a huge relief to let down your guard. It’s in that vulnerability that we not only find our own growth, but equally appreciate who is around us.

There’s something very special about being in a team and surrounded by people who show up authentically.  While it matters most in the worst of times, it is also an awesome foundation for the best of times. This the social fabric on which great teams are built.

So, what’s my advice to the boss that thinks vulnerability is a weakness?

I’m 100% calling you out. Vulnerability is a strength – it’s about courage to be uncomfortable, to really feel emotions and to connect with people one human to another.

P.S. A big thank you to that team from that time. You know who you are.