Vulnerability in leadership: why leaders showing considered vulnerability build stronger, more devoted teams and customer relationships by demonstrating a strength which embraces uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure, and self-awareness.


James Griffin, a director of KPMG, a global professional services firm, and a specialist in social media, says the most common excuse given by Australian CEOs for not being on Twitter or becoming an influencer on LinkedIn is they see it as being narcissistic.

In an interview with the Australian Financial Review Griffin said: "They [Australian CEOs] don't want to put themselves forward as they fear it will look as though it is all about their own vanity."

Countering tall poppy syndrome may be an honest concern. A more honest concern is that CEOs often don’t want to be seen putting a foot wrong.

The irony is that what we want from our business and political leaders is authenticity not perfectly manicured soundbites.

Most leaders feel they have to be perfect. The last thing I think people want from their leaders is perfection. What they want to know is that there’s empathy, that you understand, that you’re also vulnerable and are open to mistakes, and you need people to be there with you, again, in common cause to achieve a common goal.

Charlene Li 
founder and CEO, Altimeter Group                 

Stuart Bruce, a UK-based public relations moderniser, describes the communication styles of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the US presidential election in an article about the failure of professional political and communications:  "The public detest Hillary's [Clinton] carefully crafted, religiously rehearsed, marvelous messages. At least Donald Trump’s or Nigel Farage’s seemingly off-the-cuff gaffes seem authentic, even if ironically they are often lies. They appear more authentic and trustworthy than Hillary Clinton’s or David Cameron’s perfect truth."

Charlene Li, founder and CEO, Altimeter Group explains this misstep in leadership: “Most leaders feel they have to be perfect. The last thing I think people want from their leaders is perfection. What they want to know is that there’s empathy, that you understand, that you’re also vulnerable and are open to mistakes, and you need people to be there with you, again, in common cause to achieve a common goal.”

Redistribution of power from business to us

Business used to hold all of the cards. It lived by the mantra: “we make it. You take it.” That has all changed. The internet has given us choice. Social media has given us a voice.

As consumers we’ve always held opinions. We’ve shared those opinions with friends and family in the bar or coffee shop; at work or at home.

Social media allows us to share those opinions with like-minded people whatever their location. And when our opinions chime with others our opinions spread. The internet and its social web redistributes power and influence. It democratises it. Levelling it off.

Strength through vulnerability in leadership

Robert Phillips in his book Trust Me PR is Dead talks of reciprocal vulnerability: making accountability mutual. Where firms are as “exposed - and therefore vulnerable - to their employees and customers as their employees and customers have traditionally been to them.”

Vulnerability in leadership does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies exhibiting the courage to be human.

Traditionally vulnerability has not been considered as the go-to trait of a leader. But vulnerability can build deeper relationships and loyalty, enabling people to actually bring their whole selves to work. Vulnerability in leadership means embracing uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It means demonstrating self awareness. 

Instead vulnerable leaders continue to bring openness and curiosity to every situation. They continue to be more interested in what they don't know than gloating about what they do know.

The hierarchical command-and-control world of work is finally giving way to the flatter, networked corporation. Leadership is increasingly defined by communication and facilitation. Workers co-create, self organise and problem solve.

Business is slowly becoming human (again)

Ours is an age marked by uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. To cope with, and make sense of, this world requires us to take our well-practiced professional cool that served us so well in the industrial age and to replace it with acknowledging risks and matching them with emotional exposure. Skills required for today’s social age.

Acknowledging risks and exposing your emotion side is not the same as holding a pity party on Twitter. Unchecked vulnerability is re-directed attention-seeking which comes across as being desperate.

Pretence lessens our connection

Research by Paula Niedenthal [document opens as a PDF], reported in the Harvard Business Review, shows that while we may try to appear perfect, strong or intelligent in order to be respected by others, pretense often has the opposite effect intended.

We can all recall uncomfortable times in meetings when someone at the table puts on a show for the boss - behaving ‘inauthentically’ in today’s ubiquitous parlance.

We can smell the BS and we don’t like the whiff. Not only do their actions appear fake but we come away feeling just a little less connected with them post meeting.

On the flip side we feel more comfortable around someone who is open, honest and human. This engenders trustworthiness.

Become a flawsome leader

The idea of a leader showing his/her human side is very close to the branding concept of being flawsome. Consumers don't expect brands to be flawless. Consumers actually want their brands to be human. That means having good days and bad days.

In fact, as long as you're honest and open about your flaws we'll even think your flaws can be awesome. Today, as consumers, we're interested in brands and their leaders that show some empathy, generosity, humility, flexibility, maturity, and humour.

Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, the authors of Strategic Public Relations Leadership describe flawsome brands as “Those that have flaws, but are still awesome, just like human beings”.

The authors make the point that “brands and organisations with personality are attractive and if they have the humility to admit they get things wrong, the public can be forgiving.”

For leaders in the social age authenticity is key. That requires being transparent in everything you do, including admitting when you’re wrong.

Handled well, there’s a positive to being wrong. Peter Aceto, CEO, Tangerine Bank (formerly ING Direct) argues: “Fixing a perceived misstep actually has its upside, where making no missteps does not".

Today’s networked businesses realise they can achieve more through co-creation, co-operation and co-operation than through command-and-control ordering of subordinates what to do. This requires some give as well as take. And, having the strength to show a little vulnerability in leadership.

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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