3 Reasons Vulnerability is Crucial to Great Leadership

Vulnerability in LeadershipI was watching a financial show on TV recently and heard a commentator discuss a study that showed if you’d invested $1 in the stock market roughly 50 years ago, it would be worth a bit more that $13 today.  Your return would have been higher than inflation.

But if you’d invested that same $1 and taken your money out every time you got skittesh about the market, you’d only have $0.03 to show for it today!  Why?  Because even though you may have avoided the downfalls, you would have missed the huge gains as well.

And therein lies the essential truth about vulnerability.

Vulnerability means there is a chance we will get hurt: financially, emotionally, psychologically, physically.  No one wants to get hurt. 

Sometimes, in anticipation of being in a vulnerable position, we “cover up” and protect ourselves.  We pull out of the market, out of the launch, out of the deal, or out of a relationship…

But vulnerability also means that we have the opportunity to soar in ways that we will never soar if we do not put ourselves out there and take a chance. 

Being vulnerable means being exposed…to the elements, to attack, to others’ opinions, to great failure and also to life-altering success.

I believe great leaders, like Andrew Jackson pictured here, are prepared to be vulnerable knowing they have so much to gain. I believe that only by moving through our fears and allowing ourselves to be truly vulnerable do we open ourselves up to the possibility of greatness.

Let’s look at 3 reasons I think vulnerability is crucial to great leadership:

1. I believe great leaders know that the cause they serve is so much greater than themself.  Just by recognizing this makes you vulnerable. Why?

  • Because you’re acknowledging that there is so much at stake 
  • Because a “cause greater than yourself” will likely have many people opposed to that cause in the same way you ardently support it – be they competitors, battlefield enemies, political opponents or the like

Great leaders accept this and fight for their cause anyway.  I’m thinking about Lincoln as I write this; leading with the country’s future at risk.  There was so much to lose by fighting, and yet – with his cause being “the rebirth of a nation” – there was so much more to gain.

2. You all know how strongly I believe in my core that great leadership starts with clear, compelling vision.  When you passionately “own it” and lead toward it, that vision makes you vulnerable to attack from others who don’t share it and won’t support it. 

Your commitment to bring your vision to fruition makes you vulnerable, at the same time creating an opportunity for spectacular success for everyone involved.

3. I think being vulnerable is part of our humanity, and that great leaders are willing to let others see them as they truly are.  Allowing your team to see and appreciate the emotions you are experiencing as you choose to take on risk, or as you move past prior failures to a bold new vision, takes courage.

I believe when a leader shows their humanity, their basic, human vulnerability, it creates a much tighter, more trusting team.

It’s important to note that I don’t, in any way, equate vulnerability with weakness.  I would never advocate a weak position on the battlefield or suggest to a leader that s/he should look weak in any way.  Quite the opposite, strength of character and position are critical to balance vulnerability.

What do you think? Is vulnerability a signal to retreat, or an opportunity to grow? Please share in the comments!


Getting to the Heart of Vulnerability in Leadership

Are the Best Leaders the Most Vulnerable?


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Photo of Andrew Jackson by dbking.


  1. The clarification the vulnerability does NOT equal weakness is a crucial note, Lisa. Well done. People often conflate the two. Vulnerability comes out of a place of strength.

  2. Great post Lisa! I am curious to know if you think vulnerability is perceived differently by gender?

    • Thank you, Kathy. I suspect that women have to work harder to make it clear that what they’re showing is vulnerability and not weakness. What has your experience been?

      • I definitely think this is harder as a woman – every time we are vulnerable, someone seems to think we’re “emotional”. It’s a tough road to walk, but I absolutely agree that vulnerability is essential!

        • Kirsten,

          You bring up a great word – emotional. It’s so important to show our emotions in order to be our genuine selves, but I agree there is a fine line. “Being emotional” has connotations of a lack of control – and thus, weakness. I think vulnerability is about honesty – being honest about what we’re grappling with – lined with strength. Very different things! Thanks for bringing this up!

  3. Lisa – Gr8 post and insight. I love the line… “I believe when a leader shows their humanity, their basic, human vulnerability, it creates a much tighter, more trusting team.” That is right on with my philosophy. In any relationship (professional or personal), the ability to develop pure trust hinges on the individual’s ability to demonstrate their vulnerability.

    Unfortunately, people see vulnerability as a weakness (again, as you stated – it is not) – I look at vulnerability as “having skin in the game,” and more importantly, putting your “heart” (in some cases) on the line. (A little dramatic in the professional world – not so in the personal world!)

    Not to take away from your gr8 post, but Steve W.’s comment about “vulnerability coming out of a place of strength” is perfect.

    Thanks Lisa for your insight and showing us how to be human and a great leader.

    Be Good


    • Thank you, Steve. And I think it’s ok to talk about putting your heart on the line in business. After all, that’s where we give so much of our lives/time/passion – our hearts should be in it! And I agree with you, Steve has a very critical point! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  4. I loved this post and am going to share it for my college students who are learning about leadership. I absolutely think that vulnerability leads to opportunity. As a prof who teaches a challenging subject that incites fear in students (public speaking!), it is important for me to share areas in my life where I, too, feel some fear. I tell my students about my “back-of-the-pack” half marathoning and the anxiety I go through during training and the races, themselves (I only started 6 years ago after a major weight loss). By sharing this place where I am vulnerable in my own life, but then show ways that I break through and still finish, I hope to model for my students that they, too, can do the same. Thank you for this inspiring piece! Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof http://chattyprof.blogspot.com

    • Ellen,

      I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you’ll be sharing this post with students! It’s so critical as our young generation grows up for them to know the power of their humanity and their ability to move past their fears in order to climb to great heights! Please let me know what their responses/insights are – I would love to hear them! They are also welcome to join us every Tuesday night on Twitter for #LeadershipChat, which I Co-Host with Steve Woodruff (@swoodruff). We would love to learn from their experiences. All the very best!

  5. Lisa, Thanks for this post. I am in leadership development towards those who lead in Christian ministry. Your insight is profound and valuable to those who lead in this arena-because they can sometimes be the ones who are most susceptible to desiring to appear perfect-and in the process drive people away.

    • Gary,

      What a great point and insight! Trying to appear perfect does drive others away; while our common humanity brings us closer. Thanks for adding such a great thought to the discussion – I sincerely appreciate it!

  6. Vulnerability and humility are kindred souls. Both traits allow employees to see their leaders as human, fallible and more approachable. My experience tells me when this occurs, innovation and risk taking lead to breakthrough moments. The fear of failure no longer blocks creative thinking.

    Great post! Thanks Lisa.


  7. Great post Lisa! To add to your comments
    1. Being part of a cause/movement: Some “leaders” are in leadership roles because they are good at what they do (they are considered experts) but often times it isn’t something they necessarily find joy in doing or deep meaning. Truly great leaders are doing it not just because they are good at it, but because they care deeply about the bigger picture.
    2. I think great leaders are comfortable feeling vulnerable because they are life-long learners with growth mindsets. They understand that no matter how much they know,they always feel the need to build on their knowledge. They also keep an open mind and have the humility to change their perspectives based on new learning vs. maintaining a fixed mindset. Thanks again for posting! I really enjoy your blog!

    • Ginny, these points are fabulous additions to support the theory that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is what enables us to go from “leader” to “great leader.” Thank you so much for sharing them – and I sincerely appreciate the kind words. Thank you!

  8. The third point is well taken: when leaders let their staff/employees/team see them as they really are, then complicit in that vulnerability is the safety zone created for the staff/employees/team allow themselves to be who THEY really are. Once a true baseline of strengths/weaknesses has been established, growth can be achieved together. Further, when a team sees its leader overcome or otherwise handle his or her vulnerability with finesse, they also have a model that they can follow.

    • Beautiful points, Molly. Love your term, “safety zone” – very powerful imagery and what a powerful concept for others to safely grow! If we’re serving others as leaders, then “giving” them this safety zone could be a tremendous part of how we serve. And you’re so right – leaders have so much to gain by creating a model for their employees to follow. Thank you for adding such brilliant thoughts – love where this discussion is heading!

  9. Hi Lisa. I enjoyed this post and think you made some excellent points about the value of leaders being vulnerable. When leaders “open the kimono” in appropriate ways, it can lead to increased trust and respect with those they lead.

    I recently wrote a couple of blog articles that expand on this concept. The first was “Build Trust by Getting Naked” at LeaderChat.org (http://leaderchat.org/2011/07/28/build-trust-by-getting-naked-three-fears-that-keep-leaders-from-being-vulnerable/) and the second was at LeadingWithTrust.com “Four Leadership Practices that Build a Culture of Trust & Openness.” (http://leadingwithtrust.com/2011/07/05/four-leadership-practices/)

    Thanks for helping all of us in our leadership journeys!

    • Hi Randy,

      Thank you and it’s wonderful to know we’re both on the same page on this! You make a great point in referring to opening the kimono “in appropriate ways” – so important to understand what’s appropriate, what’s not, and what makes you look weak instead of vulnerable. Thanks for sharing the links as well! Would love to see you at Leadershipchat one week!

  10. greghartle says:

    As usual a thought-provoking piece. Early in my career I was concerned about showing vulnerability because I felt like I needed to show at the age of 21 I was strong enough to lead a team and strong enough to be in a room with those 20 years or more my elder. Quickly I learned that being strong and being vulnerable go hand-in-hand. There are times to show your strength through courage, grit, and even might. There are other times to show your strength through vulnerability, emotion, and even uncertainty.

    Leadership lies in knowing which to utilize when. Great post, Lisa. Thanks for sharing.

  11. LisaPetrilli says:

    @greghartle Greg, I couldn’t agree with you more, and I wish that one of the things young leaders where taught is the importance of allowing others to see the real you, and of being humble enough to ask for help. I’m hearing C-level execs struggle with young, high performers who what to give the impression they “know it all” – and it’s hindering their performance. Thanks for sharing your own personal experience, Greg!

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