Humility and Vulnerability in Leadership

By Rina Goldenberg Lynch

When we think of humble, vulnerable leaders, we instantly think of people like Barack Obama or Jacinda Ardern.  The common characteristic to these leaders is their ability to be unapologetically human.  We can hear it in their words, how they position themselves vis-à-vis the world.  Here are a few examples from Obama’s speeches and writing:

I’m inspired by the people I meet in my travels–hearing their stories, seeing the hardships they overcome, their fundamental optimism and decency. I’m inspired by the love people have for their children. And I’m inspired by my own children, how full they make my heart. They make me want to work to make the world a little bit better. And they make me want to be a better man.

A lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me

My little girls can break my heart. They can make me cry just looking at them eating their string beans.

The words Obama uses convey his efforts to be seen on par with his followers – not in  front of them – learning as much from them as they might from him.

The characteristics of a humble leader
Here are some of the other characteristics that humble and vulnerable leaders possess:

  1. They are willing to view themselves accurately – acknowledging the fact that we are all human, no matter how clever, privileged or regal.  These leaders, like Obama, are able to see themselves as equals, irrespective of their position or title.
  2. They display appreciation of others’ strengths and contributions  – alongside with understanding who they are, these leaders understand how others can complete them, filling in gaps in their knowledge or skill.
  3. They are open to learning and being taught, and to receiving feedback – there isn’t a person in the world who doesn’t have more to learn.  A humble leader understands this and continues their quest for further insight.
  4. They’re willing to be led by others – similarly, if one is willing to learn, one is also willing to acknowledge that someone (or something) can teach them, so they can step aside as leader to be led by another.
  5. They’re able to be wrong and to apologise for it – humility wouldn’t be complete if we couldn’t acknowledge our vulnerability as human beings and, therefore, our propensity for being wrong.  A smart leader understands this; a humble leader also knows to apologise when wrong.

How humility and vulnerability help develop diversity and inclusion
Nancy Kline – another humble leader – says: I’m just like you. I’m nothing like you.  She recognises the fundamentals of our common bond – our humanity – as well as our individuality.  Moreover, this statement recognises that it’s only when we acknowledge this that we can embrace new views and opinions.  Knowing that we all have our demons opens our minds to the insights of others, making space for them in our minds.  Being humble and vulnerable facilitates this by allowing us to set aside our own self-importance and invite others to share themselves with us.  This is the ultimate goal of a humble and vulnerable leader.

How to be a more humble and vulnerable leader:
To become a more inclusive leader with the help of humility and vulnerability, remember the acronym CASS, which stands for the following:

  1. Look for a team of people with complementary skills to your own, plugging any weaknesses in knowledge.
  2. Accept ambiguity and the fact that you may not always have the answer or be in control of a situation.
  3. Developing self-awareness and understanding of your own gaps in knowledge and personality.
  4. Suspend your own belief for a moment, so that you might welcome a divergent view.

Many of us believe that we’re already there.  The truth is, if we were truly a humble and vulnerable person, we would know that we’re not.

If you would like to discuss how to help your leaders to become more inclusive, ask us about our Inclusive Leadership training programme.