Vulnerability & Leadership

by Roxana Bahar Hewertson, Featured Contributor

THE TEDx TALK I’ve included this month by ‘researcher and story teller’, Brené Brown, seemed just right and I hope you will find it as thought provoking as I did.

Let me model the “vulnerability thing” with you, my loyal readers! The last month has been a nightmare for my just born and launched… web site! Oh, yes, indeed.  For three weeks now, we’ve gone from trying to speed it up, to getting blown up by a crazy programmer, to disappearing altogether, to returning without any course videos! I have the greatest empathy for people who feel vulnerable and out of control of their lives or their work.

riskThe reality is what it is, so the only question now is, “what am I going to do about it?”  Well, I have to LEAD myself and my business to a better place and I have to believe I can. I’ve reached out for help from smart people I trust and I’m telling the truth to my clients. I’ve had to remember AND accept that anyone launching any business anywhere, including on-line, is going to experience bumps and bruises along the way.  Yes, we are all vulnerable to lots of things – so what?  Good work and good people are worth our efforts!

Are you still wondering what VULNERABILITY has to do with LEADERSHIP?  You know when you take on a new project, new staff, or try to do something you have never done before, you may feel a little, or maybe, a lot, vulnerable. Will it work? Will you look good to your peers and boss? And…on the other side of the coin, you need to be vulnerable with your staff if you want them to trust and feel safe with you. They need to believe you are human and that you can have EMPATHY for them.Let’s look at another example. This is about the leader who has joined a team with older and more experienced staff members reporting to them.  Both parties in this relationship are likely to have “will I belong” questions niggling at them.

Look around. The chances of leading people senior in age and experience to you are quite high given the delayed retirements and demographics we see today. This is not a bad thing; in fact, if you are good leader, you will welcome the diversity in perspective, experience, and wisdom you can utilize from within your team. In my career I have rarely held a leadership role without managing people older than me, until I became the older one!Remember, your more senior employees may also be feeling anxious and vulnerable with a change in leadership. The staff – of any seniority – have had either positive or negative experiences with the previous leader and will bring those experiences to the table. They may have felt safe and connected to the previous leader, or unsafe and vulnerable. They may wonder if a younger leader will assume they are out of touch, behind the times, and unwilling to change? Are their careers at risk? Will they belong? Will the younger leader value their input, experience, and knowledge?

Everything we do happens through our relationships, and we choose to connect with others. How we behave impacts each of those relationships. When you create a trusting, respectful relationship with your staff, regardless of their age or experience, you will reap the rewards over and over again.

The early signals you send will calm or stir the waters. You already have the “authority” when you’re the boss. If you have to pull the “I’m the boss” card out more than 10% of the time, you are probably blowing it. Even when you do have to remind people you’re the boss (gracefully, of course!)  only do it when there is no other way to get something truly essential to happen.

Just like anyone else, you have to earn respect and trust…it doesn’t come with your title. If you are feeling vulnerable, insecure, uncertain, and less than adequate as you carry out your role, that’s ok – it’s normal. Take action and do whatever you need to do to learn enough to feel more confident. Take classes, read…and oh, by the way, your greatest teachers might just right under your nose. Welcome their wisdom and make sure they know how much you appreciate it and them.


Here are 4 things you can do that will signal you are listening and respecting your people. These apply to ALL staff:

1. ASK far more than you tell. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. LISTEN to your people, ask them what they know, want, feel, and need.

2. Remove the word “but” from most of your conversations – say “and” instead. When people hear  “but” they discount everything you say before it.

3. Say “We” 10 times more often than “I”, including in your emails. If it’s all about you, it isn’t about anyone else, so pay attention to that little “I” word.

4. Do not say “No” first. At least listen and say what you need more of or that you’ll think about it.

The fundamentals of building a highly effective team all come into play here, no matter the demographics or personalities. If you know how to create safety, trust, and group synergy, you will engage everyone on your team and get the most of their talent.

So ask yourself – do you know where you want to take your team? Do you know what they think? Have you made time to get to know each of your people, what motivates them, what they love or don’t love about their jobs? Have you asked for their wisdom, sharing that you know only by tapping the wisdom from each member of the team will you all succeed? Have you honored their contributions?

The NUMBER ONE way to demonstrate your authenticity and vulnerability with your staff is to speak from your heart more than your head. Tell them what you FEEL at least as much as what you THINK. Pay attention to the balance of these perspectives when you talk with and lead your staff to new and better places.

Bottom line – everyone IS vulnerable,  and people are motivated by and need different things, but ALL of us need to feel like we BELONG. When you build a trusting relationship and establish you truly care about that person, their wisdom, and their contributions, you will get a boatload of help, respect, and you may just learn a thing or two along the way!

Editor’s Note: This Article originally appeared on Highland Consulting Group  and is featured here with permission.


Roxi Bahar Hewerston
Roxi Bahar Hewerston
ROXANA (Roxi) has spent her entire career leading and learning the truths about how and why leaders - great, mediocre, and awful - lead the way they do. For 35 years, she has helped both emerging and expert leaders boost quantifiable job performance in education, service, sales, productivity, and profits to achieve or exceed organizational and personal goals. Roxi has been leading teams since the '70s with her early years in the corporate recording industry, then as an entrepreneur, and finally as a senior university administrator. Her graduate work at Cornell University, focusing on leadership and change, added theory to all that practice, both of which she has taught students at Cornell.

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  1. I loved your story. Thank you for sharing it with this network. I spent several years testing and copy editing websites. I know exactly how you felt. I’m glad it’s all resolved now.

    I think vulnerability and leadership have a lot in common – for the strong, experienced leader. Being vulnerable means you’re humble enough to recognize imperfection and realize you are going to wear it too sometimes.

    To me, this question is critical to leadership. “So ask yourself – do you know where you want to take your team?” If you don’t have a clear vision as the leader you will never be able to articulate clearly enough for your team to catch your vision with you. When you ask “Do you see what I see?” and your team returns blank stares, they are already lost.

    Your 4-point recommendation will certainly help with that.