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Is Vulnerability a Key Trait in a Leader’s Make-Up?

Is Vulnerability a Key Trait in a Leader's Make-Up?

When you take a quick survey of how most people respond when they are asked to describe a strong leader they will often say things like “strong”, “directive”, “self-confident”, “persistent”, “organized”, “power-broker”, “influencer”, “tenacious” and “goal-driven” etc. All of these suggest that a leader is fairly certain about what to do and is willing and able to direct people, as firmly as necessary. But these perceptions may not reflect reality very closely at all and in this article we will explore another important leadership trait that rarely gets any mention and yet can be one of the most critical as a determinant of long term success – it’s the willingness of a leader to be vulnerable.

Being vulnerable may seem counter-intuitive with respect to leadership as this characteristic suggests being exposed, perhaps uncertain and rather sensitive. But far from being problematic we may find that being vulnerable, at least some of the time, may actually lend strength and credibility to a leader and it is therefore useful to look at why this is likely to be the case.

Being vulnerable at its heart means being open, even if it’s to criticism or attack. In the context of leadership this means that a more vulnerable leader is likely to give people the confidence to speak up and share their real views even when they are contrary to those of the leader or even suggest that the leader is wrong, or off-track. This means that the vulnerable leader is likely to get better quality and real information and feedback from others upon which they can reflect and then adjust strategies when appropriate.

Going along with openness, authenticity is another key part of being vulnerable or genuinely speaking your mind or being true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character. Once again, in the context of leadership this means that a more vulnerable leader is likely to appear genuine and real to the team, even when the information given to others or his or her opinion is not necessarily popular.

Armed with as much openness and authenticity as possible the positively vulnerable leader “leans” into the future (as opposed to leaning backwards in defense). This means accepting that the future may present new and different challenges that require new approaches and “facing up” to this fact. In other words, the leader welcomes or leans into the future challenges even though he or she may feel just as uncertain or concerned as others.

As a leader becomes more willing to be vulnerable, it becomes possible and helpful to both show emotions and to feel greater compassion for others. Both of these steps demand considerable personal courage but can be extremely powerful in the mind of others when authentically displayed. This does not necessarily mean showing the extremes of our emotions but does involve making sure that what we truly feel is not hidden or masked from others (or even ourselves).

All of the above, which may be a slow and progressive journey for most leaders, assuming that they have the courage and persistence to stay the course, will eventually lead them to make deeper connections with people and enrich the quality of many relationships. This is often best done by offering up personal experiences from time to time or telling others stories about past events in which your own willingness to be vulnerable is described (especially where this led to a better long term outcome). And this will lead to perhaps the ultimate benefit – to discover that real and authentic vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, love and higher self-esteem. This clearly makes this journey well worth pursuing.

In summary then, openness and authenticity help leaders to “lean-into” the future rather than to shy away from it. In addition, the more a leader can show genuine emotion and be compassionate whenever it is appropriate to do so, they will find that they better connect with people and build stronger, more bonded teams. Ultimately, appropriate vulnerability often leads to considerably more creativity, happiness and joy in relationships in general, which makes leadership a pleasure rather than a chore. The following list shows the progressive journey to be travelled if you want to become more vulnerable:

  • Be Open
  • Be Authentic
  • Lean into the Future
  • Have the courage to show emotion
  • Develop the ability to be compassionate
  • Discover the capacity for finding deeper connections with people
  • Recognize that vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, love and higher self-esteem
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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Rachel KaruOctober 18, 2014 at 12:44 am

    Bravo John! I especially value this message coming from a man. This very much echos my work and my message. Thanks also for referencing the Self Resilience Indicator 🙂

    Wishing you and Ann a great weekend,

  2. Andrew JenkinsOctober 23, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Thanks for this informative and interesting article on leadership and being vulnerable Jon. Very much appreciated this.

    You might be interested in my own book for your ongoing research. It is called: “You Are More Than You Think – the return to your authentic self”.

    It explores two very different realities that we create in the journey through life and helps people to overcome their hangups and limited conditioning and to then return to their true selves (And therefore be able to achieve the positive attributes you suggest in your article).

    Its also a new thinking approach to coaching at the same time. You may find it on Amazon…

    or my own book website

    Thanks again Jon.

    MD of PDxConsulting Ltd & Author

  3. Jeff HaleOctober 23, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    Jon, I like the way you define vulnerability in terms of openness and authenticity.
    The characteristics traditionally associated with leadership ability (“strong”, “directive”, “self-confident”, “persistent”, “organized”, “power-broker”, “influencer”, “tenacious” and “goal-driven” etc.) can become limiting factors in a complex world environment. Today’s leaders must lead with and through others. Consequently, openness and authenticity – vulnerability, is not simply desirable, it is a requirement of effective leadership. Thanks for this thoughtful and helpful article.

  4. Themistocles PadlaOctober 25, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Jon. Your thoughts reflect mine too. There is one qualification that you may want to consider when espousing vulnerability for leaders.

    Oftentimes, people look for a leader who is able to provide a sense of direction and steadfastness in the midst of a volatile, complex and ambiguous environment. If openness and authenticity means revealing the leader’s fears, subordinates may feel their own insecurities heightened.

    A leader shouldn’t be afraid to be vulnerable but (s)he needs to also be conscious of the need of his/her people for a leader who can lead them through thick and thin.

    I am reminded of a story (not sure if true) about a colonel during the invasion of Normandy. At the height of the German resistance, he was asked if he was scared. He answered, “You bet I’m scared. But that is neither here nor there. We gotta get to the top of that hill. And I will lead you there.”

    Just my thought but I hope it is helpful.

  5. Lisa LockeOctober 30, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    Jon, your article came to my attention at just the right moment. Recently I was vulnerable with colleagues in a work situation that involved assuring a valued junior staff member (who I supervise in cross-cultural context where I’m the outsider) of the value of her contributions and convincing her stick through a period of intense internal disruption. Yesterday I learned that my leadership abilities are being brought into questions by my seniors and that incident was cited as a reason. But I know that being vulnerable flipped a switch in our relationship that no amount of prior assurances achieved. She’s so much more relaxed around me and tells me what I need to know, not what she thinks I want to hear. She knows who I am, what I stand for and that I have her interests in mind. Thank you for reminding me of what I know to be true!

    Best, Lisa

  6. Jon WarnerNovember 7, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Many thanks all for the kind and supportive comments and useful add ons here-this is a subject that needs more attention in the future.

  7. Nicola WraithAugust 19, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    Great article Jon.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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