What Does Leadership Vulnerability Really Mean?

A friend told me a story that…well, I’m not sure if it made me mad or sad. She works for a very large, prestigious company with a strong reputation as a well-run organization. The leadership team has embraced the term “vulnerability” as their mantra (or buzzword of the week), and everyone is using it.

I believe, very adamantly, in leadership vulnerability. Leaders who come to the table believing that they must be right and must have all the answers are dangerous. The ability to allow oneself to be vulnerable in front of those who “follow,” is sometimes difficult, but so necessary.

When she told me how this new buzzword played out in her own department, I was astounded.  Her business unit leader held a two-day offsite planning retreat where the leader played an inspirational video about how people must live life fully and eliminate stress.  To emphasize the point, the video told stories of those who did not manage the stress, and became ill or died.

To top it off, after the video was complete, the leader cried.  He told the team that he wanted them to know that he really wants the best for everyone, and wants to support them to live life to the fullest.

To top it off, after the video was complete, the leader cried.  He told the team that he wanted them to know that he really wants the best for everyone, and wants to support them to live life to the fullest.

After the meeting was over, my friend was gathering her stuff and she and the leader were the only ones left in the room.  He asked her what she thought about him breaking down and crying.  She stumbled through a bland response, and left.

I’d been her sounding board about this particular leader for a while. I’d heard the stories about working through vacations to meet deadlines, reorganizing the department and roles without explanation, and the 24×7 on call because much of the team were in different time zones. I’d watched her stress level rise, and tried to coach her on talking with the leader about her concerns.  I’d listened when she replayed that conversation where her leader told her it was just his management style and she needed to deal with it, and decided not to offer further advice.

As I listened to this latest story, I felt sad for her and mad for an organization that is prey to buzzwords and other fashionable business jargon that is used out of, or in the wrong context.

A new definition of vulnerability

Seriously, think about the definition of vulnerability.  Here’s how defines it:

capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon:  a vulnerable part of the body.

open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.:  an argument vulnerable to refutation; He is vulnerable to bribery.

That’s not the current business meaning. Professor Brene Brown has popularized the term vulnerability through her research and taught the world about it in her popular Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability.”  Over a decade of investigating human connection, she found that those who most connect with others display vulnerability.  But this isn’t the same thing that describes.

Her explanation? Those who connect have “the courage to be imperfect,” “the compassion to be kind, first to themselves and then to others,” and “connect with others as a result of their authenticity.”

This is not even remotely to be interpreted as crying crocodile tears in front of those to whom you want to connect.  A dictionary definition is not enough for the word vulnerability, within an organizational context. Dr. Brown created a new definition, and it is one that needs dialogue in order to be understood.

Anything less than rich dialogue and an exploration of what it really means to be vulnerable in an organizational context runs the risk of misinterpretation.  That’s what happened when my friend’s leader read the dictionary definition and made his own assumption of meaning. And he was wrong.

The words and the internal systems must match

Our business world is full of inspirational and motivational speakers and writers.  Keynote speakers are selected for their abilities to pump up the audience, generate energy and provide some meaningful tips that will make things work just a little bit better.

But when the audience returns to their regular job, pumped up and ready to do things differently but they run into a brick wall of obstacles and “the way we’ve always done things,” it does far more harm than good.

My friend is still stressed out and probably will remain so unless something changes. But now she had lost faith in her leader.  What was a frustration is now disbelief and concern for her own career, assuming the leader stays put. That anyone in a leadership position could think the behavior he demonstrated in the meeting was appropriate is scary, for the team and for the organization.

When organizations introduce concepts – good, research-based concepts like vulnerability – they need to do so with care. Words have power and can be interpreted differently depending upon all of those variables that make each person unique.

Could vulnerability, as described by Brene Brown, be an admirable leadership quality? Sure. But if that is a quality that is sufficiently important for an organization to embrace and invest time in developing, it’s important to start with a.) BEING sure about the proper definition and b.) MAKING sure everyone has the opportunity to find they own way to the collective definition.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. I feel vulnerability is when you share bad news, your emotions show that what you’re sharing is bad news. The same goes with good news. I also feel vulnerability is any aspects of yourself that show you’re relate-able, that you’re human. This works in your favor if the people you want to follow you share your attributes. This works against you when they do not see themselves in you.

    • Hi Chris – it may work against you, but then perhaps the relationship was not meant to be – as in employer/employee. To me, vulnerability is being oneself, authentically. Thanks for your comment.