Is There a Place For Vulnerability in Leadership?

Jun 1, 2016

“I can’t believe you wrote about that.”

The week before, a friend had read my book, Undone. Although she already knew some of the intimate details of my life, she didn’t expect to see some of those hard details displayed in all their un-glory on ivory pages. Thus, she sent me a quick email. I could hear the concern behind her words: You do know people will actually read this, right?!

I’ve heard similar comments a handful of times over the past year, from friends and strangers alike. There’s a strange mix of both surprise and appreciation that I would be transparent about the less glamorous parts of our story, as if honesty is something of an oddity these days.

Perhaps it is.

As a result, I’ve endured much second-guessing. Was my decision to write from such an authentic place a wise one? At times, I didn’t know. In fact, earlier this year, as I put the finishing touches on Book 2, I considered pulling back, sharing less, hiding more. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d said too much, revealed too much. Should I keep this story or that story to myself? Should I try to make myself and my family appear more “put together” and “polished?”

After months of internal debate, I don’t think so. You should know there are plenty of details I did NOT include, in both books. Certain experiences and insights are private, to be weathered inwardly and not displayed publicly. But I’ve come to the conclusion that to be less than authentic is to be less than honest. And I’m not willing to compromise my integrity in exchange for a polished persona or your better opinion.

Outside the realm of book-writing, however, all of this begs an important question: Is there a place for vulnerability in leadership? When it comes to leading a ministry, an organization, a team, a business, or even your family, does authenticity have true merit? Or is a leader’s influence dependent on her ability to hide the less glorious details behind a publicity package and, instead, display a strong front? And, while we’re asking hard questions, does authenticity have limits, a threshold over which we shouldn’t cross for the sake of ourselves and those who hear us?

These are worthy questions that require serious consideration. Any time you and I are in a position of influence, we need to think long and hard about how our words—the raw ones as well as the polished ones—could potentially impact others.

Even so, I am convinced that authentic leadership is the best kind—perhaps the only kind. To lead is to take someone by the hand and move forward, together, in a joint direction. It’s not so much about standing on a mountain and looking down at the crowds, but about standing at the base, and figuring out how we’re going to hike up, together. Trust is essential, and authenticity is the means to trust. Without it, no one will take your hand or dare scale the impossible with you.

However, authenticity in leadership is less a blanket permission and more a humble responsibility. As you and I contemplate our level of vulnerability in leadership, we must make three considerations:

1. The Purpose. Perhaps before I talk about the purpose of vulnerability in leadership, it’s best if I talk about what it is not. Being vulnerable as a leader does not mean dumping on your team. It doesn’t mean processing through your pain during work hours and dragging everyone around you through your crisis. And it doesn’t mean you need to expose every personal failure and flaw to those you lead. True vulnerability in leadership is about the other person, not yourself. It’s exposing your unpolished, in-progress self with the motive of connecting with unpolished, in-progress people. Authenticity, when coupled with wisdom, sparks relationship, camaraderie, and teamwork. In other words, it’s about creating safety, not sacrificing it. When safety happens, we not only heal and grow together, but we can travel great distances together.

2. The Parameters. Authenticity comes with significant responsibility. It’s not a carte blanche permission to bone-deep revelation. Blanket authenticity is not only reckless but selfish. To reveal every sordid detail of your hard and complicated story on passersby is to be callous to the vulnerabilities of others. Perhaps even manipulative. Authenticity respects boundaries. The end doesn’t justify the means if the means is going to wreak havoc along the way. Also, authenticity doesn’t reveal another’s person’s story, even if it would serve the needs of you or your team. To be vulnerable about the flaws of your spouse, your child, your neighbor, your coworker is unfair and, once again, self-serving. Tell only those stories you have permission to tell. Even then, you may still need to keep some things private. That’s called discernment.

3. The Possibilities. Allowing yourself to be an appropriately authentic leader holds tremendous possibilities for your team. First, as you own your mistakes and expose your struggles, you provide permission for others to do the same. Rather than creating an environment in which everyone feels the need to hide, you create an environment of collaboration. Moreover, your willingness to be vulnerable shows you esteem honesty and integrity AND you value the people in your organization more than the next deal. This creates fertile ground for not only more meaningful partnerships, but a environment primed to achieve the results you’re aiming for. Even better? It primes each member—not the least of which is yourself—for personal growth.

How have you seen a leader’s authenticity help (or hinder) influence? 

17 Comments

  1. Sundi Jo

    Needed this today. Thank you for permission to be authentic.

    Reply
  2. Jeannie S

    Thank you for being authentic Michele. I read your book and I appreciate your willingness to share, it made a big difference for me. It is so refreshing to read a book like yours. I don’t know that I’ve seen a leader’s authenticity helped or hindered but what I have seen is that people(women in the church) scatter when you share your health issues, child issues, etc. Thank you for being real and blessings of good health to you.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      I’ve seen the same, Jeannie. In fact, there have probably been times I’ve been the one scattering. I think we fear pain, uncertainty, and when we see it in someone else, our inclination is to pull back. Not because we don’t care, but because we’re afraid and helpless. I’m trying (slowly) to become someone who leans in rather than pulls back. We must go first.

      I’m so honored that you read Undone. Thank you for the kind words, friend.

      Reply
  3. Amy

    Michele,

    I just want to thank you for authenticity and tell you how much your openness about your journey has helped me as I deal with my own health issues. As we read God’s Word, the Bible is full of brokenness, failures, and authenticity. What if we’d only known the successes of David, Paul’s story after he started following Jesus, or didn’t know that Jesus was so scared of His impending death that He literally sweat blood. God’s Word helps us to see that no matter how broken or undone we are, there is hope. We are able to relate to Paul, and everyone in the Bible because they failed and suffered as we do. We know that because Adam and Eve sinned, we live in a broken, undone world, and it will be that way until Jesus returns.

    So in the age of making our lives look pintrest perfect and Facebook fabulous, we all need to be more authentic. So, again, thank you so much for being willing to share your story.

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      Thank you for that, Amy. Such an encouragement! <3

      Reply
  4. Sarah Badat Richardson

    My husband is a martial arts leader. He was even elected self defense instructor of the year in 2015. He also had a colectomy last year and I wrote about it on my blog. It’s a very real very raw essay & it has been very well received by our audience. It’s good to show people we are all just people and to show that anyone’s success doesn’t come without its share of struggles and doesn’t prevent challenges. And then to show how we deal with the challenges matters as well.
    http://www.sarahbadatrichardson.com/in-sickness-and-in-health/

    Reply
  5. Meg Tully

    This post was particularly thought-provoking and timely for me – thank you Michele. I was part of the “5-week conversation” Facebook group based on your book and wasn’t able to participate much due to life happening all around me. But you being you in your book (warts and all) has given me permission for me to be me during our struggles. One of your first questions in the group exercise dealt with our biggest fears. I answered that my biggest fear was that my will and God’s Will didn’t jive. Well, not too long after reading your book, I found that they indeed didn’t jive, and life has been, shall we say, “Undone.” I keep going back to your book and thinking about what your husband told you that if you really believe what you say you believe, everything will be OK. I’m working on it! Your authenticity and your leading by example has given me so much hope that by sharing our struggles, even the grossest parts, we can survive whatever life throws at us together. Thank you and keep up the great work. –Meg Tully

    Reply
  6. Tammy

    Love this! It’s hard to trust or follow a leader who insists on the facade of perfection.

    Reply
  7. Katie Westenberg

    So much wisdom here! To me authentic leadership is responsibility with freedom – freedom to keep learning and growing and, likely, mess up occasionally along the way. You do this authenticity thing beautifully and we are all better off because of your courage.

    Reply
  8. Rita

    I was drawn to you because of your transparency and vulnerability. I remember hearing you on Focus on the Family and when you said that “My perfection does absolutely nothing for people, but showing my imperfection redeemed by a loving God gives people hope.”, I have not forgotten that. It is out of our comfort zone to be “real” with people, but that is what they can relate to. Thank you!

    Reply
  9. Kathleen Shelton

    This was awesome, Michele! Also, love the podcasts you do with Michael Hyatt!! Thanks!

    Reply
  10. Jaimie

    I just finished reading your book a few minutes ago and absolutely loved it. Thank you for writing it and thank you for being honest and real. I related to so much of what you said. I’m excited to read “book 2.” 🙂

    Reply
    • Michele Cushatt

      So glad to hear it, Jaimie. Also? Book #2 comes out January 24!

      Reply
  11. Laura Shook

    Hi Michele,

    I just finished reading “Undone” and I love your authenticity! As pastors of a large church, my husband and I have always found that authenticity in leaders leads others to let down the walls and connect with us and with our message.

    I, too, am a cancer survivor. I found it interesting that many of the things God has taught you through the experience are the same things he taught me. I pray your health is good.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    Reply
  12. Pearl Allard

    I value authenticity and yet am not always sure what the healthy boundaries of integrity look like. Seems too easy to teeter-totter between the extremes of hiding and dumping. Thank you for questions I can ask myself to work through this issue. I want to read your book now! I found your website through Jerry Jenkin’s writers guild (he upheld your website as a model to pattern after). Thankful I came across it!

    Reply

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