Vulnerability in high performance leaders


Showing weakness demonstrates leadership strength


Should leaders of high pressure teams reveal their fallibility? Counterintuitively, showing vulnerability can lead to improved team cohesiveness, safety and performance.

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Recently one of my retrieval practitioner colleagues passed me a copy of The Culture Code (1). As part of his research for the book, Daniel Coyle visited a number of high-performance teams. These included commercial organisations, sports teams and special forces units. He explored the cultures of these organisations which allowed them to perform to the highest standards. One of the key things he found in each of these teams was that vulnerability was regarded as a positive attribute, especially in leaders. 

The benefits of strategic leaders demonstrating humility, openness and vulnerability have been acknowledged for a number of years (2). Leaders who demonstrate these traits create cultures of authenticity and trust among the team. Organisations with cultures of openness and psychological safety are more able to identify areas where improvements can be made in terms of systems, equipment, knowledge and skills. 

 Although acknowledged as a desirable trait in strategic leadership situations, can it be beneficial for leaders to demonstrate vulnerability at an operational and tactical level? If we are striving for high performance under pressure, could revealing vulnerability be perceived as weakness or even incompetence?

Undre and his colleagues3examined leadership in high pressure operating theatre environments. They described the roles of the team leader as the provision of directions, assertiveness and support. Coordination of simultaneous team activity was also imperative. The team leader needs to have a robust understanding of the situation faced by the team, what the desired end point is and what needs to be done to achieve that outcome.

 How leaders process information, make decisions and delegate to the team needs to vary according to the complexity and pressures of the situation. 

 Intuitively, in high pressure situations we might think that it is necessary for an effective leader to maintain the appearance of complete confidence and competence. In many situations an autocratic leadership style is indeed the most effective way to manage the team. The initial stage of a medical cardiac arrest is a good example of a situation which has been previously repeatedly drilled, follows a well-recognised algorithm and has minimal need for analytical mental processing. The leader can allocate roles and make the relatively straightforward decisions without the need to obtain the opinion of the team. Situations with extreme time pressure, with no free capacity for debate or shared decision making, render this type of autocratic leadership essential.  

 This style of fully confident, autocratic leadership is appropriate in many situations to maintain the followership and performance of the team. It is well recognised that followers “mirror” the behaviour and emotion of leaders. Leaders displaying signs of confidence, competence and optimism will engender these emotions in the rest of the team. This shared, positive, emotional state will help to optimise team performance.

 In more complex and dynamic high-pressure situations however, no individual can have 100% knowledge and situational awareness to make all of the necessary decisions. Often, no single person has the competence or capacity to complete all physical tasks successfully. This is particularly the case in prolonged and changing situations when progress is not following the originally projected path. In these circumstances, leaders need the support of the team to make the right decisions. Leaders need to demonstrate vulnerability and ask for assistance. 

In the context of strategic leadership, showing vulnerability is a desirable trait which enhances team cohesion and performance. It can be argued that leadership vulnerability is also essential for high pressure team performance at an operational level. Highly performing leaders have awareness of their own limitations and have the humility, and confidence, to share these with the team

Leaders show humility and vulnerability during high pressure situations by letting the team know when they are cognitively overloaded and asking for verification of their mental model. They request assistance in making decisions and carrying out practical tasks. These actions can be effective in cognitively offloading the leader. They also commonly lead to cognitive reframing of the situation from the leader’s perspective, achieving a more accurate perception of the challenges of the situation. 

When they do receive assistance, strong leaders acknowledge other people’s suggestions and actions. They give team members credit for their input. 

Vulnerability and humility are also important traits when reviewing team performance. Effective leaders are open and honest during debriefs, admitting when they were wrong. They take responsibility for their actions and the overall outcome. When appropriate, they say sorry. Following situations which have been emotionally challenging, they don’t hide their own emotions. They show their humanity to the team. 

Some leaders believe that it is difficult to lead the team from a position that may be perceived as being weak. They are wary of appearing as lacking in knowledge or competence. They fear losing authority and respect. They wish to create an image and reputation of infallibility. In truth, revealing your uncertainty or exposing your emotions doesn’t weaken your status as a leader or make you appear submissive. The opposite is more likely to be the case. 

Demonstrations of fallibility and vulnerability help to remove command gradients and create flat hierarchies. A leader who allows herself to be challenged helps create a culture in which the team feels empowered to provide suggestions and achieve an optimal, shared, solution to challenges.

Caution needs to be exercised however in certain situations when demonstrating vulnerability and uncertainty. One example is when working with flash teams. Individuals you haven’t met before and who are not aware of your experience and abilities may perceive a demonstration of vulnerability as a lack of competence. This carries two risks. Humans have an instinctive tendency to perceive how those around them are feeling and to “mirror” their emotions and behaviour. In normal social situations this allows people to communicate more effectively and to empathise with each other. In high pressure situations the leader demonstrating vulnerability to a follower who doesn’t know them may appear as lacking in confidence. This may induce anxiety in that person. There is also a risk that more assertive characters in these teams may feel the need to take over leadership of the situation in order to compensate for your perceived lack of ability.

Coyle discusses the concept of the “vulnerability loop” and its beneficial effects on organisational culture. By witnessing their leader asking for help or admitting to making a mistake, members of the team are more likely to act in the same way. “If the boss can make a mistake and share it with us, then so can I” Many workplaces are perceived as being competitive. Leaders demonstrating vulnerability and humility dispel this by creating a culture of openness, safety and supportiveness. 








3.   Undre S. etal. Observational teamwork assessment for surgery (OTAS) World J Surg (2007): 1371-1381