By Robert Mulhall

Leading With Vulnerability: How being vulnerable can serve—not harm—you as a leader


“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” – Brené Brown

The old models of leadership are no longer serving this incredibly fast-paced world we live in—and perhaps they never really did. These days leaders are facing constant change—whether related to talent and strategy, the market, their stakeholders, or their targets. The old models of leadership expected leaders to be super human—to immediately have all the answers; to be perfect; to become “better” every day, and to do all of this with a superhero cape on. This superhero model of leadership can be inspiring for a while; however, oftentimes the disguised superhero (i.e., a normal human being) burns out, eventually misses the mark, or leaves a gaping hole in the organization when she leaves. None of these scenarios serve our real needs, nor the needs of our colleagues and our organizations.

Today, we need a leadership model that embraces vulnerability, along with many other principles and practices, including service, humility, awareness, and mindfulness. In this article, we are looking at what it means to lead with vulnerability and a few simple suggestions for how to embrace it as part of your own leadership style.

Brené Brown, the well-known research professor at the University of Houston who has been studying and talking about courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame for the past sixteen yearsbrought vulnerability (and shame) into the mainstream with her 2010 talk at TEDxHouston (below).


Brené says that “[v]ulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. I know this is hard to believe, especially when we’ve spent our lives thinking that vulnerability and weakness are synonymous, but it’s true.”

How long have we been told that as leaders, we need to be “strong,” “perfect,” “a rock”? How long have we been encouraged not to show our true emotions or open ourselves up to our teams about our apprehensions, about our lives outside work, and about our very real hopes and fears? What if we changed the model to lean into authenticity more? What if we decided as leaders we were going to be real and to share what we are experiencing in the right ways at the right times?

The world we live in now is asking for us to be a different type of leader, a leader that can be vulnerable, the sort of vulnerability that “sounds like truth and looks like courage.” When we talk about allowing your vulnerability to serve you as a leader, we mean having a willingness to be present in the moment; to make hard decisions for the long-term health of your organization; to lead from the heart with compassion; to lead mindfully and with attention; and to be open to your inner center and integrity. This model of leadership has the ability to stretch us to our fullest capacity as a human being and a leader, and is worth the effort it takes. The key is to play to your strengths and follow the five steps below to support you as you allow yourself to lead with vulnerability.

“You have to be honest and authentic and not hide. I think the leader today has to demonstrate both transparency and vulnerability, and with that comes truthfulness and humility.” -Howard Schultz


#1 – Be radically self-aware. We know that when a leader is given the tools to become radically self-aware of how fear is impacting her ability to lead successfully, she has taken the first step to turning the ship. Self-awareness is the foundational tool of all great leaders—it is the ability to look inward and be honest with what we are feeling and what is driving our actions, decisions, and words. Bringing our inner mindset into our awareness is the first step in helping to reduce its potential unhelpful impacts—we first have to see it, name it, and then commit to moving beyond it.

#2 – Lead by example. Remember that vulnerability leads to trust. If you don’t model leading with vulnerability, it is highly unlikely that anyone else will. Your ability to see, name, and voice your own vulnerability at the right time will give others the courage and permission to do the same. Leading with vulnerability is not about being reckless with your emotions or falling apart as a leader; it is about being aware of our inner worlds, feeling it, recognizing it, and sharing it appropriately. This is true courage, and that is exactly what your team and organization need from you.

#3 – Create the right environment. As leaders, we must make sure that when people are at work—whether physically present in an office or not—they are experiencing a culture that will allow them to be vulnerable, to seek support from colleagues or other leaders, and act from a place of truth and courage. Leading with vulnerability is aided by our ability to be centered, still, and open to change. Blaming and shaming—whether oneself or others—should have no place in your organizational culture.

#4 – Celebrate your imperfections. Being “perfect” is impossible, and trying to be perfect can be a massive drain on both your time and energy. We are all human beings with many great strengths and many areas that we struggle with. The more we try to tightly control our vision of perfection, the more constrained we feel inside, which is a catalyst for stress. Let go and allow yourself to celebrate your imperfections. Ask for help and be open about when you make a mistake or miss the mark—it will allow others to see that it is ok to fail at times.

#5 – Reward others when they lead with vulnerability. If people don’t feel like they will be rewarded for being vulnerable, they may not find the courage to make the first step. Reward people by publicly acknowledging their courage when you see it, so that others can witness it. This will breed more and more courage to open up to vulnerability.

Time and time again, our experience has shown us that when leaders undertake these five steps, they shift, they evolve as leaders, they start to build their own confidence, and they develop a higher degree of comfort with a range of leadership styles. Beyond the individual evolution, we see that an organization’s culture starts to allow for more honesty about its current reality, and from that place of honesty, an organization can make real progress. When leaders show up this way, it gives the whole organization permission to show up this way. We start to reduce the subtle “walls” we build up in organization that affect our decision making, communication, and in how we treat our colleagues across the organization. This unlocks a wave of energy that feels grounded and real, allowing people to start feeling more at ease and more authentically themselves.

At the Crossland Group, we know that our fundamental purpose—why we exist—is at the very heart of this transformational change. We have been helping leaders at all levels more effectively lead with vulnerability. For the past twenty years—we know that, while challenging, this process is not only possible, but can also be life-changing and deeply rewarding.

Hiding what makes us feel vulnerable is exhausting—why not step beyond that fear and unlock the true potential of you and your team?

About the author

Robert Mulhall works with clients as a strategic advisor to identify core business challenges and design transformative solutions by unlocking fears and unnecessary limitations at the individual and organizational levels.

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