The Invisible Line of Authenticity & Vulnerability
Jenny Vazquez-Newsum is a facilitator, consultant, and Founder of Untapped Leaders, a dynamic and diverse community and framework that amplifies marginalized leadership. Authenticity and vulnerability have received a lot of air time and pen ink in recent years, particularly when it comes to work and leadership. It’s both coveted and cautioned, a paradox captured in Herminia Ibarra’s 2015 HBR article. A recent Untapped Leadership newsletter asked:
How does the complexity of context and identity shape our experience of being able to say "I don't know?"
What would be needed in work environments for someone to admit they don't know something without consequence?
What would it look like to allow room for mistakes without jeopardizing impressions of leadership ability? And where is the line?
The simple answer (hint: there rarely is a simple answer) is—it’s complicated. For the most part, we all know that we don’t know everything, yet we hold an expectation of leaders to confidently act even when they don’t have all the answers. We often say to "fake it till you make it," which, as Ibarra implies, can be a sign for personal and professional growth. It can be a moment that stretches you and builds your capacity to accomplish something you didn’t think you could. But what about the flip side? We could also be faking it until we break it—holding on tightly to a leadership façade of having all the answers, saving face, and possibly making big mistakes. While these moments could be signs of growth edges, they could also be signs of opportunities to open up to those around you to admit uncertainties and invite other perspectives. There is a line here, somewhere, however. We’re comforted by the confidence imbued by those we consider leaders. Those roots are deep, connecting to 19th-century leadership frameworks that defined leaders through heroic lenses. Leadership was tied to specific traits you had to be born with (unsurprisingly defined by known eugenicists). But, that confidence also plays an important role. We need optimism and some form of direction to move towards a vision. So how do we toe that line, shifting interpretations of what authentic leadership can be while understanding the limitation and realities of what is expected? Here are a few initial ideas: Build your Cushion of Trust If you come right out the gate second-guessing your abilities or communicating to others how you are uncertain about your choices, things likely won’t go well. Cultivating trust with others by deliberately sharing your expertise through your knowledge and actions allows others to understand your contributions and value to the group. Understanding what most of us typically expect of leaders is essential. Given your leadership role, how can you build trust by responding to what comforts others? Humanize Yourself Hypothesis: it’s easier and more impactful to lead when others remember you are human. Rippling from our tendency to view leaders as heroes at times, we should all work to dismantle those pedestals whether we’re put on them by others or we stand up on one ourselves. Alongside building a cushion of trust in your leadership early, also invest efforts in reminding others that you’re human—not an untouchable, unfazed individual with a big title. Practice balanced disclosure, confidently acting on your decisions that build leadership trust, but also identifying ways you can expose some of the complexities and challenges of leadership that others may not consider. Understand the Role of Context Leading authentically and vulnerably is an interplay between us and our environments. We decide how and when we want to act in our truest form or when we want to disclose a vulnerability. In return, those in our environment interpret those moments in whatever way they do. It’s hard to predict what will result, but we should consider the contexts as we determine how to proceed. Authenticity and vulnerability is a tricky exercise for marginalized leaders. Some unspoken consequences can be triggered, particularly when your authenticity does not align with a dominant culture that exists in the workplace or an exposure of a vulnerability harkens unfair and harmful biases that were already living under the surface. This all could be an exercise that is off limits in specific environments, even though these authentic and vulnerable contributions are actually essential for collective success. Observing what role authenticity and vulnerability have had in your workplace, if any at all, is important. Have you heard others, particularly in positions high in the organizational chart, admit when they don’t know something or open up about their uncertainties? Are work exchanges very formal and task-oriented? There are signs to observe in how others interact that will give you a sense of whether or not a space is contextually conducive for authentic leadership. You may sense the limitations, not to say that you shouldn’t lead authentically at all. After all, we’re here at Untapped Leaders because we want to lead differently and know we can. Your leadership challenge here will be to pace that authenticity, leaning on some of the strategies above to make progress on shifting what leadership can and should look like.