Why successful sales leaders embrace vulnerability

by Steli Efti
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Leaders like to communicate strength. In good times and bad, they project confidence almost by default. Whether they’re founders, CEOs, or sales managers, they operate as if they’re powered by unending supplies of courage.

Unfortunately, many of these leaders 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.

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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:

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. (This is also true for sales reps when they're trying to close a deal, as I've explained in a prior blog post.)

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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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.

Vulnerability isn’t showing weakness—it’s showing people how you deal with a challenge

Here’s a quick imaginary scenario:

For some reason, you’re at the gym with your entire team. They’re standing around—I’m not sure why—as you finish up your last 20 reps.

After the 15th rep, however, shit gets difficult.

In this moment, it’s okay to communicate how difficult your last set is. You can show them you’re in pain. You can be vulnerable. Grunt or swear if you have to—unless your gym isn’t cool with that stuff.

It’s your job to push as hard as you can. You’re accountable for the weight. You’re not asking them to lift for you. You’re the one who decided on that last set. If they know you’re in it until the end, they’ll do what they can to help and/or inspire you. They’ll do what they can to help you succeed.

But this scenario looks a lot different if you’re pretending that everything’s fine:

“Look, everyone. I’m not even breaking a sweat. I’m completely in control, and clearly in no pain whatsoever. Yeah, I’ve stopped at 15 reps, but that’s only so you can get a good luck at the last 5. Why are my arms shaking? That’s just my adrenaline.”

No one’s going to buy that performance.

The scenario also looks a lot different if you quit the minute things get tough. Or you start offering up excuses. Or you somehow try to blame them for distracting you, even though you asked them to gather around the machine in the first place.

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 next. 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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