Vulnerable Doesn’t Mean Weak

Perfect people are annoying. Even leaders, who are typically held to a higher standard, are not expected to be flawless. In fact, research suggests that we prefer a little fallibility and the occasional minor quirk in our trailblazers. Although we may expect our leaders to be generally heroic and larger than life, in most cases, we also warm up to them when they reveal their humanity. As long as the weaknesses revealed are not “fatal flaws,” exposing them suggests authenticity and approachability; both critical qualities in establishing trust.

To Err (Selectively) is Human

This doesn’t mean that leaders no longer have to lead by example or walk the talk. The kind of flaws and weaknesses that can foster a closer connection between leaders and followers are those that don’t undermine the honesty, integrity or competence of the leader. Discomfort with public speaking can be forgiven; accepting bribes—not so much.

The point of admitting to certain shortcomings is to be more genuine and authentic. Faking faults, on the other hand, will not make you more admired or trusted. Most people quickly figure out when an apparent area of weakness is a front and the attempt to deceive will not be readily forgotten. In researching their HBR article, Why Should Anyone be Led by You?, Robert Coffee and Gareth Jones share the following scenario, which they encountered repeatedly, and its typical effect:

“…a CEO feigns absentmindedness to conceal his inconsistency or even dishonesty. This is a sure way to alienate followers who will remember accurately what happened or what was said.”[1]

Vulnerable, Not Weak

There’s a lot of talk about vulnerability in today’s leadership conversations. Being vulnerable is not necessarily the same thing as revealing your human shortcomings and flaws. It’s more about letting your guard down and letting people in. Rather than operating from a hierarchical platform, supported by professional distance, the vulnerable leader is down in the scrum, communicating directly and honestly with everyone.

The vulnerable leader:

  • Shares doubts and concerns as well as goals and aspirations.
  • Clearly expresses how everyone’s contribution is required to succeed and that she cannot do it alone.
  • Knows and cares about the people she leads at a personal level and allows them know and care about her.
  • Checks her ego at the door and doesn’t have to be the first (or last) one to come up with an idea, nor does she need to be the one with all the answers.
  • Wholeheartedly embraces the perspectives, opinions, and thoughts of her people.

Some leaders find the idea of operating with this kind of openness disturbing, fearing that it leaves them too exposed. Emma Seppala, the associate director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education disagrees:

“Here’s what may happen if you embrace an authentic and vulnerable stance: Your staff will see you as a human being; they may feel closer to you; they may be prompted to share advice; and—if you are attached to hierarchy—you may find that your team begins to feel more horizontal.”[2]

Becoming a Strong Vulnerable Leader

If you’ve always felt that leaders should be a little above and apart from the people they lead, you may find this concept uncomfortable; but then, growth usually is.  The first step in becoming a strong vulnerable leader is to embrace the discomfort and dive in, starting with these three changes suggested by the team at Root Inc.[3]:

  1. Change your view on vulnerability. Leaders feel an almost constant pressure to perform at a higher level than others. They are the ones expected to paint a vision, develop the ideas to execute the vision, and answer the tough questions along that path. But sometimes the boldest thing a leader can do is to just sit and listen—rather than drive the conversation. No, this doesn’t mean you’re lazy. In fact, it’s enabling you to fully hear and embrace your people’s ideas.
  2. Accept vulnerability as a strength. Being vulnerable isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t make you weak; it actually makes you a better leader because you stop wasting energy protecting yourself from what you think other people shouldn’t see. It allows you to start showing your authentic self. By accepting vulnerability as a strength, you stop worrying about having every answer and realize that yes, it’s okay to even – gasp – be wrong. Regardless of what you don’t know, or whatever skill you don’t possess, your people are there to assist. You helped put these people here and it’s important to leverage all they bring to the table.
  3. Practice and be a student of vulnerability. Most of us need to practice being vulnerable because we’re used to working to impress others through our actions and words. A vulnerable leader is an active listener who isn’t worried about saying the “right” thing and can remain engaged and focused on the conversation. This results in being able to better motivate and encourage your people as they develop the next great idea and then work shoulder to shoulder to bring it to life. And when your ego creeps back up, ask yourself “why?” Remind yourself that it’s not about you, but the people around you.

Mother Teresa once said, “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.”

I suspect if we had the chance to ask her why, she would say it’s the right thing to do.

Being a strong, vulnerable leader means being honest, transparent and open. And it’s also the right thing to do, if only because the alternative is so limiting for everyone involved. In the words of Brené Brown: “Invulnerability means [choosing] self-protection over self-expression, fear over courage, blame over accountability, and safety over innovation.”[4]  That doesn’t sound like leadership to me.


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[1]  Robert Coffee and Gareth Jones, HBR, Why Should Anyone be Led by You?

[2] As cited by Will Yakowicz in, Why Being Vulnerable Doesn’t Mean You’re Being Weak

[3] Jim Haudan and Katharine Lind, Time to Get Vulnerable: Why The Best Leaders View Vulnerability as a Strength

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