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Vulnerability in leadership - an edge or a necessity?

Updated: Mar 15

Leadership is not just about telling people what to do. In fact, it is not at all about telling people what to do. Leadership is about inspiring people to believe in and pursue the highest version of themselves. It’s about modeling the way. It’s about inspiring a shared vision and lovingly (yes, I used the L-word) guiding the team towards that vision. To do this effectively, leaders must be willing to be vulnerable and show their true selves. For those that are squirming with discomfort at the mere thought of being vulnerable in any situation, much less in your leadership role, stay with me on this. You have something personal to gain here also. Understandably, the idea of vulnerability can be scary, especially for leaders who are used to projecting an image of confidence and control (if you don’t know who you are, it’s okay, the rest of us do). However, while it may take some time to get comfortable with the idea of vulnerability, the rewards can be great.

First, let's be clear - vulnerability does not require oversharing. Exhibiting vulnerability can be as simple as admitting you don't know the answer, or you're going through some personal challenges that have you a bit distracted. Being vulnerable is about acknowledging that you're human, just like everyone else at work. Not only can vulnerability help to build stronger relationships and foster a more supportive work environment, it can also have a tremendous positive impact on a leader's personal growth. By being vulnerable and sharing challenging experiences, leaders can gain new perspectives, learn from their mistakes, and become more self-aware. This can lead to greater personal fulfillment, a stronger sense of purpose, and increased resilience.

Vulnerability can also help leaders to connect with their employees on a deeper level and understand their needs and motivations. Leaders model the way and create a safe space for people to open up and bring their whole selves to work; the parts that put together the widgets as well as the messy parts…and we all have messy parts. When employees feel free to be themselves at work it can dramatically improve employee engagement, decision-making, team collaboration and innovation.

But don’t take my word for it. Brene Brown is a renowned researcher and author who has studied vulnerability, shame, and empathy for over 20 years. According to Brown, vulnerability is "the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change." In her TED talk "The Power of Vulnerability," she explains that vulnerability is not a weakness, but a strength. It allows leaders to connect with others on a deeper level, build trust, and create a sense of belonging. Brown also argues that vulnerability is essential for effective leadership because it fosters a culture of openness, transparency, and authenticity.

Brene Brown's research and writing on vulnerability have had a profound impact on the way we think about leadership. In her book "Daring Greatly," Brown explains that when leaders are willing to be vulnerable and share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, they create a sense of connection and build trust with their employees, both of which, according to Lead ADP researcher Marcus Buckingham, are in short supply in the workplace these days. Brown also notes that vulnerability is essential for innovation and creativity. When leaders are open and transparent about their challenges and failures, they inspire their employees to do the same. This fosters a culture of experimentation and risk-taking, which is crucial for organizations that want to stay ahead of the curve (or even relevant) and adapt to ever-changing conditions.

Brene Brown's insights on vulnerability and leadership are invaluable. But what has been your own experience, your own observation? Are you a leader that is willing to lean into the discomfort of being vulnerable? If not, you might consider what you are leaving on the table in terms of connection, employee engagement, problem-solving and innovation. As you may have noticed, the newly inspired workforce isn’t waiting around for leaders to come around. They’re taking their ideas, their energy, their desire to contribute to something meaningful-to someone that is meaningful. Are you that someone?


Teri Swope is CEO and Founder of SwopeLight Consulting, a leadership coaching/consulting firm. She has 27+ years of experience developing leaders and organizational cultures.

Her leadership style is inspired by the teachings of Brene Brown, Simon Sinek, Adam Grant, Stephen Covey and many other mindful, heart-led authors and leaders.

“At SwopeLight, we believe there is tremendous untapped potential in organizations; potential for deep human connection, collaboration and innovation. We believe in inspiring leaders to pursue the highest version of themselves. We believe conscious leadership is the key to this inspiration and to accessing an unlimited well of creativity and innovation.”

Teri has a B.B.A in International Management from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She holds leadership certifications from the Inner MBA Program from MindfulNYU - New York University/Sounds True/Wisdom 2.0 as well as The Leadership Challenge program.


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