Getting to the Heart of Vulnerability in Leadership

Sometimes things happen for a reason.

I should have known when Steve Woodruff, my #LeadershipChat partner in crime, suggested the topic of vulnerability for tomorrow night’s chat that I would find myself over the past week feeling quite, unexpectedly, vulnerable.

I think there are two kinds of vulnerability.  The first – the kind I experienced –  is a negative form that comes from fear. 

Like all transplant patients I have to take daily immunosuppressive medications to prevent my body from rejecting my donor’s kidney.  Because of this I am more vulnerable to infections, and this tends to make me more fearful at this time of year, especially when I begin to spread myself too thin.  Unfortunately, spreading myself thin has become a subconscious addiction and true acrobatic feat lately; thus I ended up getting sick. 

I also ended up with a computer that seemed to sense my need to slow down and just stopped working for two days.  I couldn’t get any real work done and am still thick in the process of trying to reconnect everything.

So, I’ve been very attuned to some of the emotions associated with being vulnerable this week:

  • Fear (of ramifications)
  • Guilt (“Who am I letting down because I’m getting behind?”)
  • Blame (“If I had planned better I would have seen this coming and adjusted appropriately”)
  • Anger (I can’t get anything done!)
  • Crabbiness – I know this isn’t technically an emotion, but since I’m feeling very crabby please humor me. :)

The second kind of vulnerability – the kind of  uniquely memorable leaders – is the positive sort borne of love. 

“What?” you ask, “she’s talking love again this week?”  Yes, I have no choice but to talk love again this week.  Because I think the kind of vulnerability that characterizes great leaders is derived from the love they have for their vision, for the organization, for the way in which their product or service helps others, and for the community of people they have working with them to accomplish great deeds.

For can there be another reason strong enough to compel a leader to allow themself, maybe even encourage themself, to be vulnerable? To be “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or hurt,” and “open to temptation or persuasion” as the definition states?

Not that I enjoy using the process of elimination but it seems a useful tool in this case.  Take for example greed.  Greed is a strong enough reason to compel leaders to take certain actions – but to expose themselfand their career willingly with the possiblity of serious ramifications, perhaps strategic, financial, relational or other?

What about hate? Would it compel a leader to be vulnerable? Arrogance? What about fear itself?

I couldn’t come up with another reason that seemed to make any sense as to why someone would open themselfup like that – willingly – withfaith that there will be a rich return for everyone involved.

What I did find as I was researching emotions was this quote by Ed Welch in his post Strong Emotions; Extreme Confidence, “Emotions portray what is happening in our hearts.”

Thus my belief that the ability to open yourself up, the strength to be exposed at the core of yourself, must emerge from the heart.  Of course, there must also be courage – which is why last week’s #LeadershipChat topic and this week’s go hand in hand.

I wrote a post a few months ago that asked, “Are the Best Leaders the Most Vulnerable?” I’d like to end with a few sentences from that post that solidify how I’m feeling as I write this now…

“When I think about Moses, Jesus, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. I think about the word “love.” I think about people who loved and embraced their followers and their communities…They let their enthusiasm for their causes – which literally means the spirit of god within – shine through without any hesitation, even when they were most vulnerable.”

Can we, as leaders, aspire to such acts of courage…?  I know the leaders I most respect and find myself inspired by are the ones who are doing just that.  How about you? Please share…

And please join Steve and I for #LeadershipChat tomorrow night, November 9th, at 8:00 pm Eastern Time when we’ll discuss vulnerability in leadership.

If this chat is anything like the last few you won’t want to miss it!

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Photo is Heart in Hands Belt Buckle by Lonesome Road Studio.


  1. David Holzmer says:

    Hi Lisa,

    Another wonderful posting and one that was especially relevant to my own journey with leadership.

    For the last 10 years I have been driven by a deep, almost illogical sense of mission to explore this thing called leadership. Even though I have a background in management and can speak well in front of groups this pursuit often felt like something of a mismatch and many times I wondered if I was on the “wrong” path.

    I’m really not a driven, charismatic kind of guy and I neither feel or exude the kind of heroic determination our society typically associates with leadership. In short, I often feel vulnerable a great deal of the time.

    As I continued to pursue my PhD in Leadership (you know, as part of that “illogical mission” thingy) I was increasingly drawn to explore what is commonly considered the “underside” of leadership. One of my first findings was a great, great book by Dan Allender, “Leading with A Limp” . This book helped me see the untapped power of we access by owning our uncomfortable “weaknesses”.

    This work fueled my appetite for more so I began to examine how the Jungian concept of the human shadow plays out in leadership and organizations. This part of my quest was extraordinary because it not only helped me peal away many of the popular but inauthentic, “heroic” myths about leadership, it also taught me that really great leadership is simply not possible without a deep commitment to explore and integrate one’s shadow places. [Kegan’s work and Torbert’s are HIGHLY recommended resources here.]

    In short, I think leaders like Moses, Jesus, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr changed so many lives because they had faced the leadership myths of their own times and had confronted their own perceived “shadow places” and in doing so they discovered that authentic leadership is rooted in a willingness to stand in the fullness of the human experience–especially that which we’d rather hide away.

    Thanks so much,

    • David,

      It couldn’t be more clear that this is your “right” path. This is simply a brilliant perspective and I’m just so honored that you’re willing to share it here. The suggestion of an “underside” of leadership is powerful in and of itself, as is your assertion that really great leadership is not possible without integrating “one’s shadow places.”

      I hope you’ll join us for further conversation tomorrow night and I thank you so much for the recommended resources. I look forward to diving into them. Thank you again…I’m so grateful for your insights!

  2. Lisa –

    I enjoyed reading this post tremendously and am really looking forward to the discussion tomorrow night. As I have thought about leadership and vulnerability this week, I keep going back to the idea that what makes one vulnerable often is what makes one a good leader.

    An example: As a leader, people look to that person for the answers, for the ideas, for the vision often. What makes that person vulnerable is that they don’t always have the answers, the ideas or the right vision all the time. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when trying to build leadership capacity. I believe that the good leaders shouldn’t always have the answers, the ideas, etc. in a learning organization — it should be a group thing. But what makes that particular leader vulnerable is the ability to admit that they don’t know it all, that they are learning too. Those who don’t believe in them can use this as an “Achilles heel” of sorts. Those who know them and their leadership style and capacity see this as a positive — something that makes them more human.

    I have always had more respect for the leaders who don’t remind me that they are “in charge” but rather who walk the walk and show me that they can take over when necessary, lead from a far when necessary, take the back seat when necessary and coach when necessary.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Thanks and I am looking forward to tomorrow.

    • Hi Milena,

      I agree with you in regard to what resonates in leadership. I wrote a post a few months ago about one of the CEOs I talked with through my role at CEO Connection who said of the opportunity to meet with his peers, “finally, a chance to admit what I don’t know.” I was surprised as I didn’t see anything wrong with saying, “please help me out here, this is not an area I’m well versed in and I would appreciate some advice on this…” or something similar as a leader.

      So happy to know you’ll be joining us tomorrow night! Be sure to check out Steve’s post tomorrow, it’s a gem!


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