The Common Challenge Every Leader Should Aim to Overcome at Work

Underwater view of businessman in turbulent water
Underwater view of businessman underwater in suit holding breath amid turbulent water
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome in your career?” is written by Tara Rush, chief corporate relations officer at Heineken USA.

The importance of emotional intelligence when it comes to leadership is pretty well known in the business world. Most leaders recognize that having empathy, a clear sense of purpose, and the openness to learn from mistakes are all valuable keys to success. But from my experience in overcoming various hurdles in the workplace, there’s an important driver behind all of these things, and it’s something people don’t talk about quite as much, especially at work: the power of vulnerability.

Often, the word “vulnerable” has a negative connotation. People typically think of weakness, or envision memes of bunnies and kittens batting their big eyes. But I think they’re missing the bigger picture. Maya Angelou described it best: “Most people describe weakness as this—” and she quickly bent her knees as if she were weakly falling to the floor. She continued, “But I believe vulnerability is this—” and she stood up tall and confidently, with her head held high and her arms stretched out, open to the world.

The first time I heard Maya’s explanation, I was in a workshop for the senior leaders of Heineken USA. The process we were going through to define our personal purposes required vulnerability. We shared the lessons we learned from our best moments in life, but we also shared the lessons from our lowest moments in life. I spoke about the deep depression I was in when my first child was very sick as an infant. Others shared stories of losing loved ones, being fired from jobs, or making decisions they still reflect upon with deep regret. At times, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, but it ended with 85 leaders feeling inspired and motivated in a way I’ve never experienced before in my life, let alone at work. And none of it would have been possible without us allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.

Vulnerability isn’t just important in the big moments. It’s important in the day to day. In a recent senior team meeting, we were having a challenging conversation that, despite everyone’s participation, just didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Then one of my colleagues took a deep breath and said, “Sometimes, I’m really afraid I’m not doing this right. And I’m afraid you all feel the same and we’re all avoiding the conversation.” The moment those words were said, the dynamic of the room changed. No one looked at their phones, everyone shifted in their seats to lean closer, and everyone’s defenses fell. Then we all had a truly honest conversation. Sometimes, that’s all it takesone person in the room who is brave enough to be vulnerable—brave enough to say the one thing that cracks open the real conversation that needs to happen.

Learning to be vulnerable has certainly been a challenge to overcome, but I have learned that it can be extremely powerful. It allows you to build connections and trust. It encourages you to disarm your ego so you can be more open-minded and collaborative. And often times, in very difficult conversations, being vulnerable allows you to peel back the onion and discover the real issue you are trying to solve. Leaders can have smart, strategic, insightful conversations about their business all day long, but I believe that until you are sitting in a room with people who are willing to be vulnerable with one another—people who are willing to tell you what they think and how they feel—you can only get so far and only be so successful.

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