Why leaders should not be vulnerable at work

Leaders must remember to lead, their vulnerability is judged differently to others, argues author Jacob Morgan.

by Jacob Morgan
Last Updated: 29 Aug 2023

When most people think of being vulnerable, they think of sharing mistakes or failures, talking about their emotions, or asking someone else for help. These are all important things to be able to do in our personal lives but is it really that easy and effective at work where we have a very different dynamic? And what if you’re a leader of a team, function, or an organization - do the same rules apply to you too?

To find out for my book Leading With Vulnerability, I interviewed more than 100 CEOs around the world and surveyed 14,000 employees in partnership with leadership firm DDI.

Let me start with a story. On 20 August 1991 Hollis Harris, the then CEO of struggling Continental Airlines, told his 42,000 employees to pray for the future of the company. The following day he was fired.

If Hollis was a junior employee who worked in accounting, then those statements would have made minimal impact. Some employees may have taken notice, maybe some would have taken him out to lunch to ask him why he’s having a bad day, and he would have received some words of encouragement and support from his leader and life would have moved on.

When you’re a leader, the things you say and do carry more weight and have more impact. As Doug Parker, the former chairman and CEO of American Airlines said, what Hollis did was very vulnerable, but there was no leadership.

A vulnerable leader is a leader who intentionally opens themselves up to the potential of emotional harm while taking action (when possible) to create a positive outcome. In other words, you are combining vulnerability with leadership or connection with competence, something I call, The Vulnerable Leader Equation.

Leaders should lead

Let’s take a hypothetical yet real life example of being vulnerable at work. You are given a project to manage that involves coordinating different clients and prospects. After working on it for a few days you realize that you have mixed up who the clients are and who the prospects are, everything is one big mess. You show up to work and tell your leaders, “I’m really sorry I messed this up.”

Now, let’s take that exact same scenario and see what it looks like to lead with vulnerability. Instead of saying “I’m really sorry I messed this up,” you now say, “I’m really sorry I messed this up, but here’s what I learned and here is what I’m going to do to make sure this mistake doesn’t happen again in the future. Again, you are combining vulnerability with taking action to demonstrate leadership - forward progress and growth design to make you better and close the gaps.

Steve Bilt is the CEO of Smile Brands, a dental service provider with over 7,500 employees. He said: “If you're in sixth grade asking about fourth grade math, then you need to be aware you're asking about fourth grade math. You have to know what your peer skills and mindsets should be for your position. Own and accept that if you are behind, you must be accountable for catching yourself up. Ask for a tutor, use your own time, and make the investment. 

"If you don’t take accountability and you just keep showing up each day asking the same remedial questions, then you are going to end up in a situation where people will question whether you should be in your position.”

This is especially crucial for leaders. If you keep showing up asking for help and talking about your struggles and challenges, then eventually your peers and leaders will wonder why you’re in that role…unless you demonstrate that you are working on getting better and improving.

Leaders inspire teams, develop a vision and plan, and get people to move in the direction of the vision. Leaders are also responsible for people, organisational resources, creating new products and services, and should be accountable for achieving the goals of the business.

They have a unique responsibility and power that means vulnerability cannot be treated, used, or expressed in the same ways it can for everyone else, as in the example of Hollis Harris.

Vulnerable leaders understand three truths:

1. Leading from a place of connection and influence is more powerful than leading from a place of fear or compliance. Compliance checks things off a to-do list, connection and influence can change the world.

2. The opposite of being vulnerable is not invulnerable, it’s stagnation and eventual decline. You cannot learn and grow without vulnerability.

3. The combination of vulnerability and leadership will transform you, your team, and your organization. It will unlock your true potential and the true potential of those around you.

Anyone has the power to combine leadership and vulnerability, including you. Whether you are a CEO or an entry-level employee, one the best things you can do for yourself and your teams’ success is to get the right balance between vulnerability and leadership.

Jacob Morgan is the best-selling author of 5 books including his most recent, Leading with Vulnerability: Unlock Your Greatest Superpower to Transform Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization. He’s also a speaker, futurist, and host of the podcast Great Leadership With Jacob Morgan and a Substack column on leadership also called Great Leadership.

Picture by Getty Images / Richard Drury