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Written by Sarah Riddell
Published: August 25, 2020

A Shocking Source of Competitive Advantage for Leaders

I crave connection. I share my weaknesses, my stories, my experiences, and my emotions. Often, I find myself disappointed when others do not reciprocate the level of trust I show. The more peers I work with, leaders I follow, and friends I make, I have learned this ability to connect does not come naturally to everyone.

Connection is a competitive advantage.

This vulnerability is something I did not always consider as a strength. My whole life, I have been told I am “too emotional,” I “lead with my heart,” and “I let people walk all over me.” None of these were compliments. However, the more I learn about people, the more I realize how my vulnerability will make me a great leader someday.

My changing view on vulnerability is shared throughout leadership today. Leadership has always been associated with strength and power (Jemsek, 2008, 23). Leaders are expected to be this brave commander, using heroic actions to inspire those around them. They believe being seen as compelling is the only way for others to listen. Vulnerable leaders can be seen as weak (Jemsek, p. 23).

I think people view vulnerability as a weakness because they fear vulnerability. Vulnerability is not a weakness; rather, it exposes them. It shows the human in others and is why some leaders ignore the many benefits.

Patrick Lencioni (2013) is the founder of Table Group and is a best-selling author. In Patrick Lencioni’s book, Getting Naked, he discusses the three common fears that sabotage vulnerability.

  1. Fear of losing the business – our fear of losing something or unpleasing someone that drives our desire to censor feedback and avoid confrontation (Lencioni).
  2. Fear of being embarrassed – impeding us to be open and honest, so we hold back our ideas, hide our flaws, and change who we are for others (Lencioni).
  3. Fear of feeling inferior – the feeling we need to live up to a standard and preserve our reputation at any cost (Lencioni).

These are the fears that often are the barrier to our most vulnerable selves. Vulnerability means being exposed.

Why is vulnerability a strength for leadership?

Colleen Barrett, president emerita of Southwest Airlines, said that “People admire you for your skills but love you for your vulnerability” (Blanchard, 2018, p. 14). Vulnerability, both as an individual and leader, creates a deep connection with those around you. When leaders are vulnerable – real, sincere, open, authentic –they create an environment of trust (Bell, 2005, p. 19). People can relate. An atmosphere of trust promotes effectiveness through comfort and ease. Jim Whitehurst (2015), the current President at IBM and chair of the board at Red Hat, once said:

“Think about it: who would you rather trust—the person who denies anything is amiss or the person who admits their error and then follows up with a plan to correct it? Better yet, what if that same person who admits they made a mistake reaches out to their team for ideas on how to make things right? I’ve found that leaders who show their vulnerability, and admit that they are human, foster greater engagement among their associates” (p. 3).

Revealing our vulnerable selves exposes our true nature.

When we are vulnerable, it stops the ego tendency to obsesses over self-serving illusions (Ford Walston, 2014, p. 29). An effective leader shows vulnerability by sharing experiences, being their authentic selves, and admitting when they make mistakes. They have real strength and power when they are can admit these mistakes, take responsibility, and plan for correcting them. Gator Harvey, the director of the Missions Solutions business unit for Northrop Grumman Technology Services was quoted saying:

“To fail at something shows you have the character to be a leader. You have to be public about it. Then, empower your people to do the corrective root-cause analysis and say, ‘This is how we’re going to correct it” (Zacher, 2018, p. 16).

Vulnerability may be a challenge for most people, but it is a learnable skill. You, too, can practice becoming a vulnerable leader.

  1. Practice self-awareness. The first step in being vulnerable around others is being honest with yourself. Set aside time each day to reflect or journal. Patrick Malone (2017), PhD and director of American University’s Key Executive Leadership Program, discussed becoming self-aware. He wrote, “Recognizing your emotions as they come and go throughout the day is the first step to healthy emotional intelligence. If you’re feeling it, chances are others are noting it” (Malone, p. 8).
  2. Start sharing. Tell stories. First, start with someone close to you, a spouse, family member, or best friend. Share everything from thoughts, fears, goals, and excitement (Malone, 2017, p. 8). Opening up is the essence of vulnerability and creates an environment where productive dialogue and teamwork can be fostered (Malone, p. 8).
  3. Embrace the unknown. No leader is expected to have all the answers or know the future, and vulnerable leaders do not feel they need to (Malone, 2017, p. 8).
  4. Ask for Help. Patrick Lencioni introduces the concept of asking dumb questions. Vulnerable leaders are the ones who ask the questions everyone else is afraid to ask for fear of embarrassing themselves (Lencioni, 2013, p. 206). They realize when asking five questions if three are considered “dumb,” the potential benefit the comes from the other two questions might just make it worthwhile (Lencioni, p. 206). Think about a time when you were afraid to ask a question, but someone else speaks up and asks it (Lencioni, p. 206). You look to them with gratitude and respect (Lencioni, p. 206). 
  5. Be aware of others.  Empathize. This is not just your journey. Be patient, kind, interested, and forgiving. Help others feel safe in your presence (Malone, 2017, p. 8). Become a good listener.
  6. Own your mistakes. Accept it. You are not perfect. Admit when you fail and show how you can overcome. 

Ken Blanchard is chief spiritual officer of The Ken Blanchard Cos. and co-author of “Servant Leadership in Action.” Blanchard (2018) wrote, “It’s a myth that courage and vulnerability are not linked. And if you pretend you know it all in an attempt to appear invulnerable, you’re not fooling anyone” (p. 14).  Hopefully, we can all learn to look past the stigma of vulnerability being seen as a weakness, and realize vulnerability inspires us to embrace who we are. In turn, it empowers others to do the same. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of leadership? 


Bell, C. R. (2005). The vulnerable leader. Leader to Leader2005(38), 19–23. https://doi-org.ezproxy.roberts.edu/10.1002/ltl.148

BLANCHARD, K. (2018). Courage Is Vulnerability — and Learnable. Chief Learning Officer17(7), 14.

Ford Walston, S. (2014). Courageous Leadership. Personal Excellence, 19(10), 29–30.

Jemsek, G. (2008). Vulnerability and Shifting Leadership Values. Reflections8(4), 20–29.

Lencioni, P. (2013). Getting naked. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Malone, P. (2017). VulnerABILITY Connects: Authentic leaders can build trust and fuel innovation. Public Management (00333611)99(6), 6–8. (Malone, 2017). 

Whitehurst, J. (2015). Be a Leader Who Can Admit Mistakes. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2–4.

Zacher, C. (2018). The Path to Being the Best Leader. U.S. Black Engineer & Information Technology42(1), 16.

Topics in this article

Business Leadership

Sarah Riddell

Written by Sarah Riddell