There's power in vulnerability

Over the past nine months, I’ve admitted some big weaknesses to hundreds of strangers. I’ve spoken about my struggles with low self-esteem, battles with self-care and history with anxiety. I’ve divulged uncertainties about starting a family and taking on bigger responsibilities at work. And I’ve shared it all in a newsletter that’s devoted to women excelling as leaders.

I launched The Cohort newsletter in March as an offshoot of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. In many ways, it was different from the usual Poynter fare — the tagline “women kicking ass in digital media” raised a few eyebrows — and I wasn’t entirely sure what I was heading into. I’ve published 21 bi-monthly issues so far, and often wondered whether admitting my weaknesses conflicted with the goals of the Leadership Academy.

But as I continued to publish issues and divulge uncertainties, I was reminded of the power of vulnerability. Every time I got real in a newsletter, I received a handful of lovely, heartfelt emails and messages from friends and strangers alike. And whenever I got the chance to meet a Cohort reader in person, I was met with gratitude and reminded how much we all crave honesty and openness.

When I think about bosses who I respect the most, they’re people who aren’t afraid to talk about, and take responsibility for, personal weaknesses. They create an atmosphere where failure, and therefore risk-taking, is acceptable. They listen to others’ ideas. They openly admit what all of us know but are rarely willing to say: That no one has all the answers.

Leaders have a lot to gain from vulnerability. It replaces professional distance with employee connection and loyalty. When vulnerability is embraced at the highest levels, employees feel more comfortable offering up ideas and asking questions. Workplaces become more honest, open, creative and innovative places.

Whenever I admit a weakness — that I struggle with finding confidence and advocating for my ideas, for example — I find that women come to me more often for advice on that issue. Maybe it’s because they know that topic is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. More likely, it’s because they can relate. It’s hard to ask someone for advice about an area you’re struggling in when it seems like they’ve got everything figured out.

The secret is to simultaneously own what you are good at. That’s something, in true form, that I’m still working on. While discovering the power of vulnerability this year, I also learned that I have a strong voice, am a confident public speaker, serve as a loyal mentor and friend, excel at putting together high-profile events and can create a dazzling Keynote presentation pretty darn fast. Owning and building upon accomplishments while also admitting weaknesses is a balancing act all leaders must master.

In January, I’ll have my first direct report here at Poynter. I’ve missed being a manager and helping to guide a team, so it’s an exciting way to start 2017. As much as I want to head into the year with an air of cool, detached professionalism, I know I won’t. That’s not me, and I’m not going to build a strong relationship by being inauthentic. Just like I have online, I’ll open the door for vulnerability.

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    Katie Hawkins-Gaar

    Katie Hawkins-Gaar is the organizer of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. She was previously Poynter’s digital innovation faculty member, and taught journalists how to make the most of social media, understand audience engagement, rethink workflows and foster creativity.


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