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Can a Strong Leader Be Vulnerable?

Why vulnerability doesn't weaken traditional leadership qualities.

Key points

  • Vulnerability and the key leadership traits of strength, resilience, and being seen to lead are not incompatible.
  • Sharing weaknesses and challenges makes your message more resonant and increases your ability to lead with strength.
  • Resilience relies largely on vulnerability, as support from others makes it easier to overcome setback and achieve goals.
  • Great leaders lean on others, bringing together the best ideas to come up with the ideal solution rather than expecting to know all the answers.

We have been conditioned over the years to see invulnerability as core to the qualities that define good leadership.

We expect our leaders to be strong and be seen to be strong.

We expect our leaders to be resilient and be seen to be resilient

We expect our leaders to take the lead and be seen to take the lead.

And yes, it is important for leaders to display those qualities. But are they really the polar opposite of being vulnerable, as many would assume?

In December 2021 The Financial Times posted an editorial calling for a new "era of empathy", stating that we need new leaders and that chief executives have to begin to show their vulnerable side. Leaders are slowly beginning to recognise that being more human and taking themselves off their pedestals increases engagement and loyalty and creates a different, more positive culture throughout their organisations.

But the new focus on vulnerability does not necessarily mean that those leaders can’t continue to demonstrate the qualities outlined above.

Stronger through Vulnerability

In January 2019 a research paper published by Harvard Business School reported that it benefits successful people to be open about their failures. The premise for the study was that people would be more likely to engage positively with people when they shared their failures as well as their successes. Participants scored their reactions to individuals in various scenarios and the team demonstrated that revealing successes and failures led to a decrease in "malicious envy" (defined as when people wanted a perceived peer to fail) compared to just sharing successes.

Everybody wears masks many times in both their personal and professional lives. We don’t walk around sharing every emotion, doubt, fear, and challenge in every conversation. And there are good reasons for that, particularly when for leaders, to whom other people look for reassurance and clear direction.

But there are times to let the mask slip and, by doing so, engage people more. That mask can be a barrier to trust; by lowering it you let other people in and allow them to relate to you as a human. So many people saw their organisation's leaders in their home environments for the first time as they held Town Halls remotely from their home office or spare bedroom during the pandemic—and they appreciated it.

Leaders who demand the attention of their teams can no longer expect their unquestioning attention. People need to want to hear what their leaders have to say and they are more likely to do so if they feel more connected.

How Vulnerability Aids Resilience

It’s natural to see vulnerability and resilience as mutually exclusive, one is perceived to be a weakness while the other a strength. But is that really true?

Resilience is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties". Surely it is easier to recover quickly with the help and support of other people, rather than on your own. If that support then helps you to achieve your goal more easily, doesn’t that then make you stronger?

Many leadership roles require huge levels of resilience. Uncertainty can exist within an organisation and outside. Leadership doesn’t equal control and good leaders adapt to whatever circumstances fall in their path. Surrounding yourself with people who can mentor, advise, and support you on that journey can make a huge difference in your ability to cope and then recover quickly.

Leading from Among, Not from Above

Many modern cultures (and indeed, throughout history) put their leaders on pedestals. It’s most obvious in the way we obsess over the lives of celebrities and royalty but often extends to certain business leaders (Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson) and, perhaps less often these days, politicians.

We expect those leaders to be better than us, to be perfect. That’s why their fall is greater when they show themselves to have human frailty—and why our media actively seek to find and expose those flaws.

In a business sense, that can translate into turning to leaders for the answers to all challenges. And for leaders to expect themselves to have all of the answers. But great leaders don’t have the answers, instead, they surround themselves with people who together can find the right solution and they then take responsibility for making the final decision.

Most leaders will have risen within their organisation or industry by having excelled in a specific function, rather than by being generalists with deep knowledge and insight across all skill sets within an organisation. We need to rely on people around us to give us the benefit of their experience, expertise, and different perspectives if we are going to make the best decision possible.

The best leaders don’t stand above the crowd and dictate. They are the first among equals, soliciting different opinions from around them and then showing the way forward.


Turbulence Ahead: New Leaders Required (December 27th 2021), Financial Times editorial.

Wood Brooks, Huang, Abi-Esber, Buell, Huang and Hall (2019), Mitigating Malicious Envy: Why Successful Individuals Should Reveal Their Failures, Journal of Experimental Psychology.

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