Even superheroes have their vulnerabilities . . .

VULNERABLE SUPERHEROES: Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) face off in the Batman v Superman movie
VULNERABLE SUPERHEROES: Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) face off in the Batman v Superman movie

THINK about all the most popular superheroes. Now think about what they all have in common: it’s vulnerability.

Sure, they have plenty of cool gadgets, powers, abilities etc, but what creates tension in their stories is the fact that they all, at some point, find themselves in some form of (usually deathly) peril at some point. There is no tension or arc to the story otherwise.

Superman has kryptonite that can render him powerless. Batman was just, well, a man under all that gear and could bleed like everyone else. You get the gist. It would be boring otherwise.

The problem here however is that vulnerability is often seem or portrayed as some form of weakness. Something that gets exploited. Something that needs to be minimised, eliminated and overcome.

In real life, and especially in leadership however, vulnerability is not always a problem, in fact it can actually be an asset: a crucial asset for success.

First though, it’s important to clarify what we actually mean by vulnerability in this context (and also what it doesn’t mean).

It doesn’t mean performative weeping and wailing. It doesn’t involve an in depth dredging of someone’s personal life. We don’t need to know about relationship failures or that time you lost the Sunday league cup final and it’s definitely not a medical report or a confession of whatever misdemeanours you may have got up to in college. In short, it’s not seeking atonement, forgiveness or sympathy for private misdeeds.

What constructive vulnerability in leadership is however, is being able to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I got that wrong’. It means being able to share an appropriate weakness, in context and at the right time.

It means being able to take other people’s views and opinions on board. To be strong enough to hear criticism and act on it. To be open enough to change your mind, to accept that yours maybe isn’t the best idea in the room. It means being honest with people.

It means being able to share problems and difficulties within the business. It means being open and honest enough to take time out if a personal event or illness has knocked you off your A-game.

The days of the stoic, immovable, unquestionable leaders are gone (or at least they should be). The old joke of ‘If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you’ is no longer funny, if it ever even was.

There are many benefits:

• You immediately become more relatable to the people you work with, because they can now see you as a fellow human being and not someone on a distant pedestal. In turn this means they can be themselves, express opinions, hold difficult conversations, be (appropriately) contrarian if needed.

• It means that employees won’t struggle on with diminishing returns, mistakes or even catastrophes occurring, when they genuinely need to take time out to heal and get well again.

• Creativity and new ideas become more common. Inspiration is allowed, encouraged even. Employees feel there is safety to make suggestions even if they are wrong.

• It also helps attraction and retention. If a leader allows staff to make suggestions and implement their ideas the environment already becomes more equitable and encouraging.

• Big mistakes can be avoided because honest feedback is possible. If it looks like some really poor choices are about to be made, you ought to be able to suggest alternative courses of action to leadership and allow a course correction before disaster happens

• It also means that if employees have made a grievous error, they feel empowered and comfortable enough to admit it. It’s not hidden away, festering, growing bigger and only revealed when it’s too late. Instead, it’s raised early, analysed properly and truthful so that solutions can be found before the matter becomes fatal to the business.

• Overall, trust increases and cascades throughout the organisation.

Does it mean that everyone can go around carefree, continually making mistakes just because a leader is able admit when something goes wrong? No, of course not. There comes a point where making multiple or serial mistakes indicates a lack of competence and needs addressed, a lack of learning, however the atmosphere should be created where these can be discussed rather than hidden.

Does it mean that decisions will all be made by democracy? Again, of course not. It does mean however that employees should be able to contribute, with leaders assessing the data and making a final call as necessary.

Leaders steer the ship, they are not (and should not) be expected to know everything. They should however create an atmosphere where all employees can give of their best. Where talent can be harnessed. Where ideas are the lifeblood of the business and honesty is the currency.

They do this by showing vulnerability. Simon Sinek perhaps said it best: “Authenticity is about imperfection.

And authenticity is a very human quality. To be authentic is to be at peace with your imperfections. The great leaders are not the strongest, they are the ones who are honest about their weaknesses.

The great leaders are not the smartest; they are the ones who admit how much they don't know. The great leaders can't do everything; they are the ones who look to others to help them. Great leaders don't see themselves as great; they see themselves as human.”

:: Barry Shannon is head of human resources at STATSports