The Value of Vulnerability Within a Leader

In times of unprecedented crisis, leaders are being put to the test by their team members. Employees are asking tough questions and, in some cases, are doubting the abilities of their superiors to see them through the end of the crisis. This can create even greater uncertainty for an organization already sitting in inclement weather. In moments as such, the best option any leader can take to be open, honest, and vulnerable. Leaders can take actions to develop a workplace that nurtures and positively supports vulnerability. By doing so they can foster an environment of creativity and trust.

Key takeaways

  • Current perceptions of leaders reinforce stereotypes which can hinder the benefits of a vulnerable leader.
  • Leading with vulnerability leads to a culture of creativity and loyalty.
  • Finally, leaders who ask for help for their colleagues can gain a better, well-rounded perspective, enabling them to make better decisions.

What is vulnerability

American Professor Brene Brown, best known for her research in vulnerability, defines it as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” This doesn’t mean freewheeling tough decisions and sharing intimate details of one’s personal life. Rather it is calling for individuals to show up to work in an honest way where who you are and your values comes through.

What does this look like? Simple, but tough, acts such as admitting when you’re wrong or owning up to the fact that you do not have all the answers. This becomes particularly important in times of uncertainty, like navigating the COVID19 pandemic.

Current assumptions and expectations of leaders

There are many assumptions and representations of leaders that impact what we as employees expect of them. First, recent views of leaders are that which are confident, strong-willed, and charming individuals. Within pop culture, these characteristics are usually paired with signs of success. Movies such as Wolf of Wall Street depict gregarious behaviour rewarded by financial success.

Additionally, there is popular belief that leaders are expected to keep a distance from their employees and maintain an image of cool, calm, and collected. An example of this is in business literature, where a no emotion approach to leadership is popularized by promoting books like Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This led to a misinterpretation of what it takes to be a good leader. In extreme cases, such galvanization of such perceptions has led to bad behaviour.

Take the case of Dr. Christopher Daniel Duntsch, a convicted criminal and former neurosurgeon. He was able to exercise gross malpractice over 33 patients, many of which resulted in death. In an investigative series podcast, Dr. Death, it is alleged that Duntsch should have never been able to become a neurosurgeon. However, through his charisma and strong will, he was able to progress his way through medical school into one of the hardest specializations and successfully opened his own clinic.

Rarely do we perceive and reward leaders who bring humility and humbleness to their practice. And yet, there is growing number of anecdotes that tout the value and impact of leaders who do not behave in a way that fit current perceptions.

With that, vulnerability is one of the most powerful tools in the leadership toolkit. Leaders who are emotionally intelligent will find ways to express their vulnerability without team members perceiving them as weak.

Vulnerability at Work

Benefits and impact of vulnerable leaders

Displaying vulnerability leads to multiple benefits in an organization. Some of these include:

Culture of experimentation – when leaders own up to their mistakes in public, this creates a safe space for other team members to express their failures. Having psychological safety to fail will encourage team members to take risks and experiment. As a result, this increases creativity, which can lead to productive and innovative solutions that the organization can capitalize on.

Builds loyalty – cultivating personal relationships is what breeds loyalty in a workplace. Opening up to a co-worker about a difficult experience or about a failure is one way to build this type of relationship. Offering up this information signals to your colleague that you trust them. And by doing so, you may open up the conversation to learn more about your co-workers.

Authenticity for your reputation – scientific research has found that humans are very adept to picking up on body language; namely, we can see when a leader is being inauthentic. With that, being inauthentic or paying lip service to a cause will lead you to being quickly called out by your team. Additionally, it will further drive team members away and dismantle any trust and respect that you have built with your team members.

Supports leadership – a reported two thirds of CEOs that seek advice do not get it. This maybe driven by presumptions that leaders know what they are doing or a fear of answering incorrectly. When executives demonstrate vulnerability and reach out for help, they can erase this perception. As a result, their team members will offer up to support them, thus giving way to better, well-rounded decisions.

Actions for creating a work environment supporting vulnerability

As a leader, there are key actions you can take to facilitate an environment where individuals, including yourself, can be vulnerable. These include the following:

Self-awareness – at the cornerstone of vulnerability is self-awareness. Having the ability to reflect on yourself to understand where your blind spots is the first step. It enables you to understand where you may have been wrong and allow you to take action and ownership of those moments.

Own up to your mistakes – humility can be a great asset so long as it is paired with the actions to support development and growth. Admitting you are wrong signals to employees that you are honest with yourself and the team. However, without a plan for growth it can lead colleagues to feel as if you are inept.

Ask for help – this can be an incredibly difficult thing to do. Asking for help from colleagues not only demonstrates vulnerability, it also brings the colleague into the fold for creating a solution.

Listen – this is by far the most important trait encouraging an environment where individuals can be vulnerable. Taking the time to intently listen to your peers will make them feel valued. This is especially true if they are opening up about a difficult situation at home or at work. As a leader, this can also allow you to properly support the individual by giving advice or providing support. This will further encourage employees to continue opening up rather than closing off, which can be detrimental to their performance.

Related Readings

Professional Leadership Institute (PLI) is an educational website providing professionals from all types of businesses with practical education in human resources and leadership. To keep evolving your leadership toolkit, additional PLI resources below will be useful:


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