Vulnerability of a leader

What do we expect from a leader today? With three, soon four[1], generations in the workplace, intercultural and virtual teams, diversity high on the agenda, change a constant, social and global mobility, employees’ needs changing, depending on where they are in their life. What does a leader need to do in order to meet all these needs?

Researchers, writers, consultants, leaders have given many different key competencies which in one way or another describe a person who is somewhat perfect. We expect a leader to inspire trust, to drive their team’s performance, enable constant learning, prepare for change, have a clear vision and deal with uncertainty; anticipate the clients’ needs and be ahead of market changes. All this whilst remaining authentic and strong.

And who wouldn’t want such a leader, someone we can look up to follow even in the most challenging times, someone who has the compass, who is always strong in spite of  the situation. Probably most of us would answer yes.

The question is: does such a person exist? Can such a person, who  constantly and consistently exuberates this positive strength be authentic, be real?

Dr. Brené Brown[2] is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She spent the past thirteen years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. She introduced the term vulnerability to the context of leadership. In her book “Daring greatly” she defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, joy, creativity, engagement, trust, adaptability to change, all elements we look for to give purpose and meaning to our lives – professionally and in the private life.

In the light of striving for perfection, vulnerability as an emotion which carries a taste of weakness and tears, seems somewhat out of place and contradictory. Dr Brown proved that vulnerability is courage, the courage to admit that a situation is difficult but facing it in spite of all the difficulties. Courage is also making oneself accountable, taking action even without having all the details, stepping forward in the dark, taking the risk of failing over the risk of not taking action. Sharing these emotions respecting the boundaries of a given situation is THE key element of the courage vulnerability requires. By sharing we give others access to our emotions, allowing for connection.

Linking the term vulnerability to leadership in the light of the omnipotent, perfect leader raises doubts. Can a person who shows vulnerability be trusted to make the right decision for a whole organisation? What do employees and board members expect from a leader and what do they believe? Leaders are constantly faced with uncertainty, they make decisions without the full data, they assess and take risks with failure being an option. Do leaders go through these processes like a robot? Would a robot be trusted in its decision making process?

We probably all share the answer “no”. We would not trust a robot because it lacks the key element for trust, the human factor. We need to relate and connect in order to be able to trust. Giving others access to our emotions, showing our human face, being vulnerable, is the basis to relate and connect. Dr Brown evokes the term boundaries when sharing emotions. Being able to assess the context in which we are and act accordingly is pivotal. The picture she paints is the leader who connects with their team by acknowledging their uncertainty whilst providing the energy, the conviction that they can succeed, hence connecting with empathy to the team.

Leadership at all levels of the organisation is about establishing relationships, connecting with others, creating the feeling of belonging, creating thesense of purpose and meaning. Dr Brown defines “connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” In today’s workplace, this is the energy, we are looking for in the environment where people can be creative, innovative, initiate and embrace change because they are not judged but encouraged to grow. A leader who embraces vulnerability, who takes action, who is accountable, who inspires trust, sets the foundations for this environment where people can flourish and drive the success of the organisation.


[1] The first members of generation Z are joining the workplace as apprentices



Tatjana von Bonkewitz – senior HR professional with more than 20 years of experience in the business and in HR, specialised in organisational development and transformation. Based in Luxembourg, active in Continental Europe, experienced in the financial, social, medical, public and industrial sector. Degrees in philology, psychology and economics, she manages transformation initiatives, develops and executes trainings, accompanies organisations in wider HR topics such as talent management, succession planning, recruitment, personnel development and this in five languages.

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