One Leadership Skill That Will Set You Apart

This skill probably isn't one you've ever thought about developing--and that's a big mistake.

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This post is in partnership with Inc., which offers useful advice, resources, and insights to entrepreneurs and business owners. The article below was originally published at

I recently wrote about control freaks, and was surprised by the feedback I received regarding one suggestion–to be more vulnerable. For many, vulnerability signifies weakness and incompetence. They believe it has no place in leadership where authority and strength must be maintained.

I worked with a founder-turned-executive for several years, encouraging him to be more vulnerable. He is a brilliant visionary and leader. However, he had a bad habit of hulking up when he felt fear or insecurity. Rather than be vulnerable and reveal his self-doubts, he would let his emotions (and the underlying shame) morph into an aggressive force field to keep people out. Unfortunately, it only served to shut out the people whose support he needed most.

I told him, “You don’t have to be vulnerable with everyone–that would be exhausting–just with people who matter. Your family. Your business partners. Your girlfriend.”

Leadership gurus have extolled vulnerability’s importance and TED talks have espoused the power of vulnerability, but what exactly is it? And why do we humans collectively suck so bad at it.

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Vulnerability is taking a risk, stepping into the emotional unknown, and exposing who you really are. You’re comfortable showing your deficits as well as your assets.

Vulnerability is when you can admit you’re wrong and take responsibility for your part in a conflict. By claiming your role in the dysfunction, you are better positioned to de-escalate a situation and to work toward a resolution.

Vulnerability is when you can give honest appraisals of a person or situation. Saying what you really think isn’t always easy. If fortified with compassion, however, it can be the quickest route to building trust with another person.

Vulnerability is when you can encourage others to be better than you. You aren’t intimidated by another’s big success. You’re inspired and challenged by it.

Vulnerability is recognizing when you’re having an emotion and naming it. It’s the opposite of posing.

Vulnerability goes a long way to build trust and loyalty, create stronger connections between partners and teams, and mitigate conflict. So why is it so damn hard?

Simply, it pushes us into the unknown and primes us to experience one of the hardest emotions there is–shame.

Shame is that emotional punch in the face the moment when your worst fear is realized. You know the moments.

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In a conversation with someone, she off-handedly verifies the thing that you’re most insecure about. There it is. It’s out. Your cover is blown. The fear that you’re not smart enough, successful enough, thin enough, caring enough, or whatever enough is, in fact, true and being exposed right at that moment.

Or, you’re new to a company or social group and have no idea what to do or how to act. Your deepest insecurities are out in full force. The insecurity you feel is a form of shame. The posturing you do to cope is a way to slam the door on vulnerability.

What you do in these moments has the potential to set you apart as not only a great leader, but also a great person.

There is one caveat. Some people are just not safe to be vulnerable with. They will distort, minimize, or use it against you later. Decide who has earned your authenticity and trust. Then lean into vulnerability by being honest about what you’re feeling. Find the humor and laugh at yourself. Empathize with everyone else’s crazy insecurities. Take a risk. Be open.

Because most of us suck at it, if you can master the art of vulnerability, you have a distinct advantage. It may very well be the one leadership skill that endears you to others, creates unwavering loyalty, and sets you apart from the pack.


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Dr. Shelley Prevost is a co-founder of Lamp Post Group, a venture incubator in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She curates kick-ass cultures by infusing principles of positive psychology in her role as Director of Happiness. @thegladlab