Vulnerability. The word alone should strike fear in the heart, especially for those of us in law enforcement. For many, the term likely induces a dramatic eye-roll which is accompanied by a deep and loud sigh. Vulnerability is one of those words we are likely to encounter in team-building workshops or within a therapist’s office. Vulnerability is certainly not a word found in the daily law enforcement professionals walk…or is it? Should it be?
Vulnerability involves being authentic in the admission of one’s challenges. Vulnerability is the open and honest view of one’s struggles, combined with the courage to share those struggles. The intent is to not only to openly acknowledge the issue(s) but most importantly, to provide an example to others. In doing so, we experience the incredible power of acknowledging those same struggles by revealing our inner thoughts. So how does vulnerability relate to leadership success within law enforcement?
Years ago, a valued mentor provided me a glimpse into his mind. He was quick to point out some of his professional struggles and shortcomings. He would share with me how he had wished he had made certain decisions with more conviction and how he wished he had been more intentional with sharing leadership nuggets. He would sell himself short in my opinion I held him and his decisions in high regard, as I still do now.
When he first shared his perceived shortcomings, I was initially shocked that he would reveal such a “secret” with me. I would leave our conversations with a sense of relief, feeling as though it was perfectly acceptable to make mistakes, to self-critique, and to do so openly and without hiding behind a veil of perfection. For the record, I do not attach leadership with a title or rank. I believe leadership permeates organizations, if we have the ability and willingness to acknowledge it.
As leaders, we are supposed to have all of the answers, correct? We have always been taught that with leadership comes great responsibility. Within that leadership role, we are expected to be decisive and right. There is no room for half-hearted decisions. If our decisions draw critique, we should be prepared to defend them.
What reason did my mentor have for being vulnerable? Was it the latest and greatest rage in being a better boss? I quickly learned that he shared this information with me to help develop my own leadership skills. He paved the way for me to see the perceived risks but genuineness associated with sharing your lack of knowledge, lack of experience – vulnerability. He helped me to see that it was not necessary to always be right. In fact, there is certain value in being wrong, in having the courage to admit it. Vulnerability provides the safety net for our leadership shortcomings.
Some view the concept of vulnerability as a weakness. Some avoid demonstrating vulnerability at all costs; oftentimes avoiding opportunities to empower others by admitting that you may not have all of the answers. The hazard is how our demonstrated vulnerability will be perceived. Will we be seen as weak, as unintelligent, as indecisive, as disconnected? Does this “wearing our heart upon our sleeve” approach leave us open to attack? Does it make us a less effective leader within our organization?
There is great importance, as a leader, in demonstrating vulnerability, not just in your professional life, but in your personal relationships and parenting. At the risk of sounding overly clinical, the avoidance of vulnerability relates to the self-deception associated with those who pretend to know it all, to have all of the answers, to never be caught off-guard. While these types of people feel as though they need to keep up this facade, they lose credibility within their profession, within their family, and with their friends. At some point we all become numb to this disingenuous approach to life.
In the workplace and in a leader’s role, it is important to demonstrate your vulnerability to your peers, superiors, and your subordinates. This demonstration of vulnerability allows for further opportunities to collaborate on issues with a genuine and wide-open invitation for ideas. It also serves as an excellent opportunity, regardless of your position within an organization, to lead the way in this area.
Vulnerability is a key component to the mentoring process within organizations and families. It is much more difficult to pretend to know the answers, pretend to have plan, feign leadership in an area than it is to simply demonstrate vulnerability. By allowing others to see your shortcomings, you demonstrate that you are no different than any other peer, superior or subordinate. However, you have the courage to relate a lack of knowledge in an area, you provide implied permission for others to do the same.
Following my epiphany with the leadership demonstrated by my mentor, I became aware of the power of vulnerability not only in my personal life but in my professional walk. If you are a leader in your organization, please try to understand and reap the rewards of using the power of vulnerability. While I enjoy seeing those who are brave enough to explore this as a tool for their leadership walk gain success, I caution those same people to not overuse the tool. Keep the approach real. You are not always wrong and there is not always an opportunity to critique yourself in front of others. After all, you were chosen as a leader or are yearning for leadership for a reason.
I explained this concept in a recent meeting with a prospective promotional candidate. A person involved in conflict can gain so much by recognizing the error of their ways and sincerely apologizing for their part in the conflict. This usually brings the conflict to a screeching halt. Not much is left to argue about when one party admits their part and offers a sincere apology. The problem lies with utilizing this tactic only to end the argument. One must be sincere; otherwise the tactic will eventually backfire.
Vulnerability is authentic, it is powerful, and it is essential for organizational, familial and relational success. Consider its effectiveness in your leadership walk and encourage its influence on those key areas in your personal and professional life.
Timothy Albright is a 19-year veteran LEO with a diverse professional and educational background. He is a sworn police manager in Northern California. Timothy has a criminal justice undergraduate degree and a master’s in negotiation and conflict management, with an emphasis on labor management. He is an adjunct university criminal justice supervision and management instructor. Timothy also teaches a social media awareness course for public safety personnel. He is passionate about developing and mentoring the next generation of law enforcement leaders through pragmatic approaches to everyday leadership challenges. As an instructor, Timothy hopes to demystify the leadership walk within the dynamic law enforcement environment.