What Leadership Training Leaves Out: Vulnerability

Leadership is a concept that many revere, but few know how to define or put into practice. You’ll hear it from parents as soon as their kids join 4-year-old sports programs. The second their kid takes charge or passes the ball, you see the light in their eyes. Their kid is a leader

What does that even mean? Honestly, I’m not so sure – but to them, it’s magical, and their kid has it. We reinforce the value of leadership again once kids head off to school. Look around the walls of any elementary school classroom. If you can’t find the word “leader” or “leadership,” I’d be shocked. They put reminders to be a leader on decorations, print it on lunch trays, and say it in every speech. They even use it as a threat: “Don’t you want to be a good leader?” 

As kids get older, a million tests and acronyms starting from elementary school through graduation and into corporate America to help determine strengths. Each delivers one more grade, number, and acronym to compare and rank ourselves against one another.  

If you score well, your reward is more tests, more letters, more papers to remind you that you’re one of the chosen ones. You made your parent’s dreams come true. You are a leader.  

Then reality strikes.  

I don’t mean to disappoint your Mom, but leadership is a verb – not a noun. It’s not something you earn by filling in bubbles and taking tests. It’s not a score. Companies are still trying to create a formula and train people to know who they are because it’s easy money compared to teaching people what to do. 

It’s just too bad that your scores and codes have nothing to do with actual leadership. Worse? You paid a consultant $1000 a person to have them stroke egos and give you data that’s not predictive of success. 

What does leadership training leave out? Vulnerability

Tell me one thing you have in your life that you obtained without some vulnerability. 

In every leadership training, they’re helping people self-identify, but there’s not a transition to practice. It’s like asking all those 4-year-old basketball players, “who’s a basketball player?” Then when they say yes, you give them a high-five and a spot in the 2034 NBA Draft. You’re not a basketball player until you play ball. The same goes for leadership. You’re not a leader until you have led people. 

Leadership training spends so much time defining strengths without dialing into weaknesses, vulnerability, and resilience. It’s not about candy bars and cheesy motivational messages. It’s what you do when the cards are on the table, and things have to change. 

I wish more leadership training talked about vulnerability and the emotional realities of being a leader. Sure, you can run a team – but how should you, as a leader, model self-care? What mental health risks exist for leaders? How can you teach a team to care for one another, and you? How do you let yourself be vulnerable to them? 

We can’t be innovative without failure, and you can not lead without being vulnerable.” 

I want leadership training to involve real conversations that point out weaknesses and coach leaders to enable their team to deal with the inevitable bullshit of working with other people. We need to spend less time hyping people up with scores and teach them to thrive in reality. 

This post was inspired by a tweet and a conversation with Renee Branson, who offers resilience training. Check her out here.