Accounting for Vulnerability in Leadership

Though employee engagement is on the rise, a 2016 Gallup study found that only a third of all U.S. employees were classified as “engaged.”


A large part of that workplace engagement is driven by a company’s culture. Companies that foster authentic social connection tend to have employees who feel more invested in the organization (and its leadership) than those that don’t. There’s also compelling evidence that leaders who allow themselves to be vulnerable can help create these environments—while remaining more effective than their counterparts.


But what does vulnerability in leadership look like?


A Look at Vulnerability 


Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who is well-known for her work on vulnerability, describes it as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”


This can sound antithetical to the structured, tough mindset most leaders think is appropriate. In the workplace, we often strive for distance, hoping to project the right image: one of confidence and authority. The idea of allowing others to peek through the cracks in difficult or uncertain moments can seem antithetical to the traditional leadership model.


However, vulnerability doesn’t equate to “weak” or “submissive,” and losing your armor can in some ways lend you immense strength. 


Vulnerability to Build Trust


Trust has been shown to be a fundamental building block in terms of improving employee performance. Trust in a leader improves morale and helps cultivate a positive workplace culture. In short, it helps people feel more comfortable. One significant method of building trust is through authenticity and vulnerability. 


People have a surprising knack for recognizing signs of trustworthiness in leaders. Those who show genuine emotion and allow themselves to be vulnerable will  be seen as more trustworthy than leaders with a constantly cool demeanor.


What Vulnerability in Leadership Looks Like


Vulnerability in the workplace doesn’t mean a relentless emotional meltdown or constant shows of weakness. In fact, there are probably ways you allow yourself to be vulnerable without even noticing. Here are a few examples of vulnerability in leadership:


  • Admitting mistakes and failures
  • Encouraging constructive feedback
  • Asking for help with challenging work
  • Sharing your fears or insecurities
  • Being candid about your personal process and journey
  • Having the good humor not to take yourself too seriously


Some of the best leaders aren’t shy about their blunders or weak spots, because they understand that these are opportunities for vulnerability. Without them, there’s no way to earn trust with your team. And without those failures, there can be no innovation.


Vulnerability is about having a willingness to be seen for who you are, as you are. With a little vulnerability in leadership, you may even allow your team to see you as human, share ideas and communicate better, and invest in your organization’s success. Try inserting a little more openness into your leader’s toolkit to see the strength it earns you.

Our blog is full of ideas about creating connections between you and your team, from vulnerability and beyond—so be sure to check it out.