Why Great Leaders Show Vulnerability


The last few months, I’ve spent a considerable chunk of my time in Switzerland.

One of our clients, a well known technology company has been undergoing an integration as the result of a recent acquisition. Thankfully for us, there’s been a lot of hiring due to some gaps in the current workforce.

However unfortunately, due to cross-over there’s also been a lot of redundancies and firing.

A couple weeks ago, the CEO called a company wide meeting. Well in advance, most people knew exactly what was coming.

The event itself however was one of the most interesting and (bizarrely) inspiring experiences of my professional life. I’ve attended such meetings before and the format is usually quite predictable: “I really appreciate all of your work, but unfortunately the board has come to this decision, we’ll do our best to look after you, thanks again etc etc etc”.

Short, to the point, and usually quite brutal.

This was quite different. Our CEO spent the first half an hour giving a heartfelt speech about how depressed he’d been feeling the last three months. He got emotional at least three times. How he was reconsidering his own position. How he felt guilty and took responsibility for what was happening. At one point he even broke down in tears.

But despite his apparent fragility, it seemed to connect with the crowd. His speech was met with voracious applause. Many people we’re crying. And when the Q&A session started, there was a genuine attempt to try and work together to find the best solutions moving forward.

His vulnerability almost created even more power.

Leadership is often associated with discipline, power and total self-control. “Captain fantastic” or Napoleon the Great. But in ten years as a recruiter working at C-level I can say with confidence that often the opposite is true.

Often vulnerability can build trust far greater than brute strength.

Here are some reasons why great leaders show vulnerability.

It levels the playing field

In many areas of life – whether it be business, politics or even education – leadership is often associated with being “better” than the rest. On a different level. In fact, most of us are even used to leadership having an association with being “at the top”.

With such a hierarchal attitude, it’s no wonder why many leaders fail to truly engage with the team around them. Even the most disciplined and hardworking leader will often find that authority and ability alone is not enough to get the best from their followers.

You see, as deeply emotional beings, what us humans all crave is connection. The feeling that we can relate to others. The knowledge that we’ve walked in their shoes. Experienced similar issues. Even felt their pain.

Great leaders understand that showing vulnerability lowers the guard. It levels the playing field. It demonstrates to others that leaders are not superhuman or unapproachable. That they are just like us and that we can relate to them.

Great leaders bleed like the rest of us.

It allows followers to reciprocate

Leadership is giving.

The greatest leaders have always understood that the ability to serve others and create trust is the basis of every great leader’s power.

Yet the funny thing about giving is that its never a one-way street. As innately social beings, we are all programmed to give back ourselves in some form or another. Helping others makes us feel complete. Purely focussing on self-gain or relying on help from others can often result in frustration, burnout even depression.

Great leaders understand that by admitting vulnerability honestly, they give their followers a unique opportunity to give back to them. To offer advice. To listen. To even provide support.

Most people don’t want to purely take from others without getting the opportunity to give back. Great leaders understand that if they want their followers to reach out and seek help when required, then it’s only fair if they do the same.

Great leaders give others the opportunity to help them.

It’s genuine

Ever met someone who seemed to have it all?

The perfect career? Mountains of wealth? An adoring family?

We all know people like this. Maybe you’re one of them. Yet ironically, its often these people who tend to be isolated and resented by others around them. Whether its always being the number one student in the class or the worker who consistently wins the promotion, sometimes being too successful individually can make leading others a challenge.

The reason?

Because nobody is perfect. Not even mother nature herself. And due to our innate tendency to self-reflect, its hard to accept anyone else who seems faultless.

Great leaders understand that everyone has problems. By showing vulnerability on challenging issues they face, they demonstrate they are no different to the rest of us. That they are normal. It’s way more genuine.

And the more genuine someone is, the more likely we are to trust them.

Great leaders use vulnerability to build trust.


Life isn’t a text book.

However educated, experienced or prepared you are, things will go wrong.

And when it does, it can often hurt.

Great leaders believe that truly powerful co-operation starts with honesty. Honesty that can require being brave enough to show vulnerability. To allow others to help and to find solutions together.

By doing so its possible to build teams that can achieve anything.

Does your leader show vulnerability?

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