Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Can You Be Vulnerable at Work?

What it means to be an authentic leader.

Seth Godin legendary business thought leader and major ruckus creator said this: “Everyone you interact with is changed forever. The only questions are, how will they be different, and how different will they be.”

Think about how profound that statement is. The way you choose to show up each and every day, regardless of the position you hold, impacts not only your life but also the lives of everyone you come into contact with.

This doesn’t mean that in order to be a good leader you have to have all the answers. Or even that you should pretend to. In fact, research suggests that great leaders do exactly the opposite.

For example, Dr. Brené Brown, one of the world’s leading researchers on authenticity, has found that one of the critical components for great leadership is the willingness to be vulnerable with others. Of course, vulnerability is far easier to read about, than it is to do. After all vulnerability is the first thing we look for in others and generally the last thing we’re willing to show. In others, it’s courage and daring, but in us it often feels like shame and weakness.

Showing up and genuinely being seen for all our worthiness can be tough. Being real takes courage. It also makes us more relatable and trustworthy. Being vulnerable means rather than needing to always be the expert, that we can ask questions when we don’t know something; instead of trying to do it all, that we can ask for help when we’re struggling; and when things go wrong, that we’re willing to ask for feedback, take accountability and learn from it.

When you allow yourself to be seen for the strength and struggle you really are studies have found people at work may feel closer to you, be more willing to share advice, and your team may begin to feel more horizontal. Brown has also found that vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.

As leaders, vulnerability requires us to own how we’re feeling, to be attuned to the emotional landscape of others, and to be willing to sit in the discomfort this can bring. It means accepting that uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure don’t need to be outrun or outsmarted. It means consistently choosing what is courageous over what’s comfortable.

Perhaps this is why Godin suggests that if we’re not uncomfortable in our work as a leader, it’s almost certain we’re not reaching our full potential. Brown suggests that vulnerability starts with the willingness to be honest about what gets in the way of being our most authentic selves at work. What’s the fear that holds us back? Where and why do we want to be braver?

Then she recommends figuring out what’s our armor? Are we hiding our true selves behind perfectionism? Intellectualizing? Cynicism? Numbing? Control? While this armor feels like it’s keeping us safe, it’s actually shielding us from the chance to feel truly worthy of connection.

So what if you put it down for a moment? What if instead of feeling the need to protect yourself, you accepted that we are each imperfect, but wired for struggle, learning and growth, and absolutely worthy of being respected, valued and loved? And by the way, in case you were wondering, this all means that you are good enough, just as you are, right now.

The truth of it is that in work and in life there are no guarantees about the outcomes that we’ll achieve. Instead of striving for perfectionism or worrying about what others might think, great leaders allow themselves to be truly seen. It is their courage to be imperfect that makes them both authentic and effective.

If thinking about the kind of authentic leader you really want to be has left you feeling slightly nervous, don’t despair. Brown notes that in fifteen years she’s not met one transformational leader who did not do discomfort. Leadership she suggests is about choosing to do what is courageous over what is comfortable.

So if you’re feeling a little vulnerable or afraid about what’s ahead, know that you are exactly where you’re meant to be. In the meantime, reflect on these questions below and work your way through them as a journaling exercise, and see how you are really going when it comes to being vulnerable as a leader and in your working life.

  • On a scale of one (not at all) to ten (absolutely) how comfortable are you with truly being vulnerable and seen for who you are at work? Try to be as honest as you can with yourself.
  • How does this willingness to be vulnerable impact your work and your relationships? How does it impact your ability to lead others?
  • What gets in the way of being your most authentic self at work? What’s the fear that holds you back? Where and why do you want to be braver?
  • What’s your preferred armor when you want to hide your true self at work? Perfectionism? Intellectualizing? Cynicism? Numbing? Control? What might this be costing you in terms of opportunities for genuine connection or learning?
  • If instead of feeling the need to protect yourself, you accepted that we are each imperfect, but wired for struggle, learning and growth, and so absolutely worthy of being respected, valued and loved, could you put down this armor in the areas you want to be braver?
  • If you truly made peace with the idea that imperfection simply means you’re learning like every other human being on the planet, could you accept that you are perfectly good enough? If this feels like a big ask, what could you do to experiment with these ideas and see what unfolded?

This is an edited extract from the new book Lead Like A Woman: Your essential guide to true confidence, career clarity, vibrant wellbeing and leadership success by me and my amazing co-author Michelle McQuaid. Haven’t got your copy of the book yet? Head over to Amazon and get yours today. You will also get access to 15 free play sheets and guided visualizations to help you create real change for yourself. I think you’ll love it!

More from Psychology Today

More from Megan Dalla-Camina

More from Psychology Today