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Why successful sales leaders embrace vulnerability

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Leaders like to communicate strength. In times of crisis, many founders, CEOs, and sales managers project confidence by default.

Unfortunately, many of them also equate vulnerability with weakness. They’re simply not comfortable leaving themselves open to criticism or doubt.

But there’s power in vulnerability. In fact, it’s a big part of leadership. People want to know how their leaders feel, so that they better understand the business and its future.

When you’re faced with revenue decline, a lack of investors, or even legal trouble, how you react sets the tone for the rest of the company.

Do you lie? Do you pretend nothing’s wrong? Do you hide failures and missed opportunities?

Or do speak honestly and openly with your team?

There are two very simple rules when it comes to leadership vulnerability:

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1. Be accountable

Take responsibility for the situation you’re in.

Nobody likes admitting fault, but it’s important to own the decision that led you down this path. You’re the leader—you have the most responsibility and the most at-stake—so it’s ultimately your job to fix the problem.

But vulnerability doesn’t mean falling on your sword. You don’t have to be a martyr. Just gather your team and tell them:

  • What you’re up against
  • Why it happened
  • Where you currently stand, and
  • What this could mean for the future

If the situation sucks, you’re allowed to say it sucks, as long as you can quantify what “sucks” actually means for the business. Was the situation avoidable? How much will it cost? Are people’s positions safe?

You don’t have to shoulder all the blame, but vulnerability doesn’t really work when you spend time blaming others. This is your opportunity to prove that you’re the leader the company needs. And you can only do that by holding yourself accountable for your success.

2. Be honest

Consistent, heartfelt communication develops trust over time. The more everyone hears the authentic you, the more willing they’ll be to follow your lead.

Let’s say you’ve been forthright in the past:

“Look, I’m stressed about our lack of Q3 growth. I know this probably isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. We have a few ideas to boost our numbers, and I’ll share those with you as things take shape. But today, we’re not where we want to be.”

Later, when you’re faced with another obstacle and you say, “Here’s what’s happening, but I’m not concerned,” there’s a good chance they won’t be concerned either.

Why? Because you’ve shown that you can be vulnerable, and this isn’t one of those times. They have no reason to second-guess your words or motives. If you say there’s no cause for concern, there’s no cause for concern.

People spend a lot of time not trusting each other

Putting on a brave face (or avoiding the truth) means that you don’t trust your team to handle bad news. You don’t trust them to follow your lead.

When you’re openly vulnerable, they can be vulnerable, too. They can ask questions that help to build trust. They can share ideas and solutions. You can all work together to overcome whatever is in your way.

But it’s important to think about how you’re vulnerable

You don’t get to be weak. You don’t get to be a whiny baby.

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↑↑↑ Not you ↑↑↑

This isn’t your opportunity to stand in front of the team and say, “Everything is horrible. I don’t know what to do. I can’t breathe. I’m so overwhelmed. There’s no way we can recover from this.”

You can’t allow your emotions to run wild. You’re still a leader. People come to you for answers. They rely on you. They trust you.

If you start barfing your feelings all over the office, everyone’s just going to quit.

Those scary, paranoid thoughts—the ones that scream, “It’s all over!”—are just that: scary, paranoid thoughts. They’re in your head. So keep them there until you’re ready to calmly and clearly communicate what happened, what it all means, and what you plan to do about it.

Here’s the lesson:

As a startup founder, CEO, or sales manager, it’s okay to be vulnerable, as long as you’re also accountable and honest. In fact, I encourage (controlled) displays of vulnerability when situations call for them.

It’s okay to communicate that you’re stressed or worried. Doing so can be a really effective motivating factor for your entire company. It’s okay—and even necessary—to open up about challenges and obstacles.

But it’s absolutely not okay to give up. It’s not okay to rant and rave like a lunatic. It’s not okay to let the team shoulder the weight of your responsibilities.

In the end, it’s on you to be calm and collected in the face of adversity. It’s on you to put the fear of vulnerability aside. It’s on you to say:

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re in a really tough spot, but here’s what I think we should do next. Here’s how we’re going to get through this together.”


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