How allowing myself to be vulnerable made me a better leader

Opening up about our insecurities limits their power over us.
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Leaders are catalysts

Conventional wisdom suggests that leadership is strong, bold, decisive. In my experience, leadership does feel like that some days.

Some days leadership feels more vulnerable. Doubts creep in: Am I making good decisions? Am I the right person for this job? Am I focusing on the most important things?

The trick with these moments is to talk about these moments. When we keep them secret, our insecurity only grows. Being an open leader means pushing our vulnerability into the spotlight. Only then can we seek comfort from others who have experienced similar moments.

To demonstrate how this works, I'll share a story.

A nagging question

If you work in the tech industry, you'll note an obvious focus on creating an organization that's inclusive—a place for diversity to flourish. Long story short: I thought I was a "diversity hire," someone hired because of my gender, not my ability. Even after more than 15 years in the industry, with all of the focus on diversity in hiring, that possibility got under my skin. Along came the doubts: Was I hired because I was the best person for the job—or because I was a woman? After years of knowing I was hired because I was the best person, the fact that I was female suddenly seemed like it was more interesting to potential employers.

I rationalized that it didn't matter why I was hired; I knew I was the best person for the job and would prove it. I worked hard, delivered results, made mistakes, learned, and did everything an employer would want from an employee.

And yet the "diversity hire" question nagged. I couldn't shake it. I avoided the subject like the plague and realized that not talking about it was a signal that I had no choice but to deal with it. If I continued to avoid the subject, it was going to affect my work. And that's the last thing I wanted.

Speaking up

Talking about diversity and inclusion can be awkward. So many factors enter into the decision to open up:

  • Can we trust our co-workers with a vulnerable moment?
  • Can a leader of a team be too vulnerable?
  • What if I overstep? Do I damage my career?

In my case, I ended up at a lunch Q&A session with an executive who's a leader in many areas of the organization—especially candid conversations. A coworker asked the "Was I a diversity hire?" question. He stopped and spent a significant amount of time talking about this question to a room full of women. I'm not going to recount the entire discussion here; I will share the most salient point: If you know you're qualified for the job and you know the interview went well, don't doubt the outcome. Anyone who questions whether you're a diversity hire has their own questions to answer. You don't have to go on their journey.

Mic drop.

I wish I could say that I stopped thinking about this topic. I didn't. The question lingered: What if I am the exception to the rule? What if I was the one diversity hire? I realized that I couldn't avoid the nagging question.

Because I had the courage to be vulnerable—to go there with my question—I had the burden of my secret question lifted.

A few weeks later I had a one-on-one with the executive. At the end of conversation, I mentioned that, as a woman, I appreciate his candid conversations about diversity and inclusion. It's easier to talk about these topics when a recognized leader is willing to have the conversation. I also returned to the "Was I a diversity hire? question. He didn't hesitate: We talked. At the end of the conversation, I realized that I was hungry to talk about these things that require bravery; I only needed a nudge and someone who cared enough to talk and listen.

Because I had the courage to be vulnerable—to go there with my question—I had the burden of my secret question lifted. Feeling physically lighter, I started to have constructive conversations around the questions of implicit bias, what we can do to be inclusive, and what diversity looks like. As I've learned, every person has a different answer when I ask the diversity question. I wouldn't have gotten to have all of these amazing conversations if I'd stayed stuck with my secret.

I had courage to talk, and I hope you will too.

Let's talk about these things that hold us back in terms of our ability to lead so we can be more open leaders in every sense of the phrase. Has allowing yourself to be vulnerable made you a better leader?

picture of Angela Robertson
Love leading teams to develop products customers love and can use with ease.;


Thank you for sharing your story, Angie - there is a powerful lesson here. Learning how to be vulnerable has been one of the most important aspects of my development as a leader. In my case, my breakthrough was about openly discussing a decision I had made that upset a lot of people. Acknowledging it, explaining what I learned from it, and thanking people who shared feedback, had a huge impact on how I was received going forward.

I completely agree with your opening thoughts - if you feel doubts, share them!

In the end, it seems you must acknowledge that you can't erase these kinds of concerns. The longer someone takes to explain why you're not a diversity hire, the more it seems likely -- why have they spent so much time coming up with answers to this?
The worst-case scenario might be that yes, you were (to some extent) a diversity hire. It's up to you to show that you will be much more than that.

I like this article because it highlights a rare quality, especially among the leaders: the ability to question yourself. I don't see it as something making you vulnerable though, not necessarily. In the end, it makes you stronger, as it leads to know more about yourself, both weaknesses and strengths.
If you don't ask yourself tough questions, you will never know.

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