What it means to be a vulnerable leader

Discover the transformative impact of vulnerability to strengthen your leadership and encourage trust within your team.

Steffan Surdek
November 13, 2023
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In the last article on the blog, I talked about the true cost of being a resilient leader. In a nutshell, I explained to you that there is a cost to pay for being overly resilient. This often happens when you are carrying everything on your back for an extended period of time.

One of the ways I suggest to work through this is to allow yourself to be vulnerable with your team. You need to learn to share with others what is going on sometimes, especially when you are facing difficult situations. You may even be surprised by the help and support that people have to offer you.

In this article, I will go into more detail about what vulnerability truly means as well as how to encourage it within your team and for yourself.

What is vulnerability?

Often when I talk about vulnerability I find that people see it in its most extreme forms. There is this notion that in the business world, you should not be overly emotional, or show any emotion at all.

Vulnerability does not mean showing yourself in your most raw moments all the time in front of your teams. It can be much simpler than that. I like to think of it in the way Patrick Lencioni does in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, when he talks about vulnerability-based trust.

What do I mean by that? Think of it this way. As a leader, do you want to create a space where people are able to say they do not know or they need help? An environment where your team is comfortable enough to say "This is my fault" or "I'm sorry" without being afraid of judgement?

Being vulnerable can be as simple as that. It is about knowing that you are imperfect sometimes and being OK with saying that.

How to encourage vulnerability in your team

What if your team is not comfortable going to these places? What if they are unwilling to talk about their mistakes or to ask for help? You need to create permission within your team to allow them to be authentic. It is about how you show up as a leader to make it happen.

One simple thing you can do to start is to encourage your team. Say for example that someone is sharing a vulnerable moment in front of everyone and there is judgement that happens. As a leader, it is your responsibility to step in.

Recognize with your words that it is not an easy thing to do for the person who is being vulnerable. For example, you can say something like: "Hey, wait a second here. They are making an effort to share this with us. We want more of this, not less."

Another thing you can do is to be the person that initiates it by being vulnerable yourself. As part of your leadership, you also need to be the one who shows up in that way and says those things. This is where developing your soft skills can be a huge help.

I often hear from leaders that this is very uncomfortable for them. I get it! I want to tell you though that you do not have to be completely helpless in those moments.

How to be vulnerable in the moment

Let's start with an example. Say you are in a meeting and you shut someone down before they finish speaking. You may go to that person after and apologize to them. That is a good start. What if instead you did that in the moment in front of the whole team?

What if you turned around and said "Oh, I'm sorry, I should not have done that. I should not have gone there. I would like to hear you out. Can you please continue? I will not do that again."

Can you imagine what the impact would be? The example that you are setting for your team when you are able to catch yourself in the moment is priceless. It can start with easy things like this. It can start with simply apologizing, or asking for help when you mess up. It is especially powerful when it starts with you.


Like many leaders, vulnerability is something that can be uncomfortable for you. However, you do not have to think of it as weakness, or as bringing your emotional bagage to your teams. Instead, view it as a way of acknowledging imperfections.

By framing it this way, you can respect and honor the people on your team when they take the risk to be vulnerable in front of others. Protect them and support them so more people are encouraged to be vulnerable themselves.

Cultivate a culture of vulnerability within your team and allow yourself to be vulnerable in front of them as well. It is about setting the bar where it needs to be within your team. This is what will help you move beyond the blame game, be more constructive and solve business problems better together.

What is one simple way you can be vulnerable with your teams today? How could that help send a powerful message to your team?