Our Leaders Must Make Friends With Vulnerability

26 July 2022

    Jacinda Ardern

    Leadership and suspicion.

    Leadership and authenticity don’t always go hand in hand.

    Politicians and authenticity even less so.

    With great power comes great responsibility, and along with that, often quite a bit of suspicion from the people that they have power over.

    The term “power over” itself is problematic. Better and more helpful is “care for,” but people don’t often feel “cared for” or even like a priority for their leaders. Suspicion and distrust fester.

    Kim Scott, former CEO coach at Dropbox says “to some degree, the minute you assume the role of boss you’ll be fighting preconceptions.” People are already predisposed not to trust you and leaders don’t help themselves when they don’t allow themselves to be authentic.

    An obsession with perfection.

    Perhaps it’s an obsession with perfection – not wanting to show any weakness or chinks in their armour. There’s a heavy weight of responsibility to deliver results. It’s impossible to be authentic when you place yourself under relentless pressure to be perfect. It’s not realistic. It’s not human. It’s no-one’s authentic truth and we can’t relate.

    With such a heavy focus on not getting caught out and having all the answers, leaders allow themselves less space to listen, understand and learn.

    One of the things that set Barack Obama apart as a leader, irrespective of his politics, was his willingness to listen and respond authentically to his audiences, even when under immense pressure. The following clip is a masterclass in vulnerable, authentic leadership.

    Barack Obama confronts Heckler

    It’s all of our responsibility.

    Responsibility must also be taken by all of us. We have to re-assess  how we judge not just our leaders but each other. If we want greater authenticity and leaders that we can relate to, then we must allow space for them to be imperfect. We must allow more space for all of us to be imperfect. This is rarely the case.

    We only have to look at the unforgiving way that public figures are treated in our media to understand why they may feel uneasy about letting their guard down and being themselves.

    Russell Brand’s analysis of Theresa May’s tears at her resignation is exceptional. We don’t allow space for our leaders to be human: We must.


    We also only have to look at the way we treat each other on social media for more evidence. Anyone that puts themselves out there and shows a little of them to the world is vulnerable to pretty vicious and downright nasty attacks.

    Yet, Brene Brown is brilliant in likening this to an arena – “If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

    We need to stop focusing on bringing each other down and rather unite in getting our bums kicked together. Authentic. Imperfect.


    Imperfect is authentic.

    That’s why New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s national address in a sweatshirt from home is as brave as it is inspirational. Free from any obsession with her own perfection, ensuring a flattering camera angle, delivering a word perfect script, or endless retakes, she just talks to us. It’s simple, it’s human, it’s authentic and it’s thoroughly refreshing.

    Trust – an analysis.

    The key currency between any leader and the people they lead is trust. And authenticity is essential to trust.

    Jacinda Ardern puts a huge deposit in her trust account with the nation with this address for 2 key reasons. High levels of intimacy and low levels of self-orientation. Take a look at our Trust Equation below.

    If Jacinda, as with many politicians, remains obsessed with “demonstrating” her own reliability and credibility in this address, the focus is entirely self-orientated. A charge so often leveled at politicians. “You don’t care about us. You just care about furthering your own interests.”

    Jacinda’s reliability and credibility are essential, but instead of demonstrating them, she trusts that they’re there and focuses on the needs of her audience – providing reassurance and hope. Everything serves this generosity of spirit. Her self-orientation is negligible.

    As for intimacy, this is all about HOW you deliver your message and how you make your audience feel. Maya Angelou said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” It’s so powerful because it connects with the limbic part of the brain where emotions are stored and decisions made. It has no language or rational thought. People often say, “I don’t know why, I just get a good feeling.” Or, “I’m going with my gut.”

    High levels of intimacy create this effect and Jacinda Ardern has it in abundance. She isn’t focused on being anything that she isn’t or creating any facade of perfection. Her guard is down, she’s showing her full self and focusing on how she can help her people.

    Now that’s true leadership.


    Leadership now and beyond.

    In my last piece I spoke about how the current crisis and enforced remote working environment is forcing more of us to show more of ourselves. Our communication over various mediums from home means that there’s really no escape from showing who we really are. The boxes that we appear in on our video conference calls are serving as windows into our true selves – Just like Jacinda Ardern in this video.

    This authenticity is incredibly powerful and, crisis or no crisis, we need more of it – especially from our leaders.

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