The Paradox of Vulnerability: Why the strongest leaders aren't afraid of weakness

     The best leaders view vulnerability as a strength.

     I am reminded of the spectacular Roger Federer, who was so close, yet so far away from lifting his ninth Wimbledon title against Novak Djokovic during the 2019 Wimbledon final. The Swiss superstar let slip two match points while serving for the match at 8-7, 40/15 in a thrilling fifth set, eventually falling short against the Serbian. “I don't know what I feel right now. I just feel like it’s such an incredible opportunity missed, I can't believe it. It is what it is.” Federer said.

     “For now it hurts, and it should, like every loss does here at Wimbledon. I think it’s a mind-set. I’m very strong at being able to move on because I don't want to be depressed about actually an amazing tennis match,” Federer continued. “In the field and also at the awards ceremony I held back the tears that were there on the border.”

     “Then as soon as I got down to the locker room, on the first comment, ‘What bad luck, you were close …’ I collapsed and a few tears escaped” (emphasis mine).

     Roger Federer will still be regarded as probably the greatest tennis player in the history of the sport. But after he inexplicably lost that 2019 Wimbledon final match, his vulnerability in the locker rooms was a natural response to being simply human.

     So, if Roger Federer, being one of the greatest tennis players on earth, can be vulnerable, and if Superman, when given a dose of kryptonite, can be vulnerable, as leaders, there are times we should be vulnerable.

     Leaders who are prepared to show their vulnerability more easily gain the trust of others, and are, in fact, more effective leaders. Admitting our mistakes, seeking help, apologizing and acknowledging we don’t have the answers all involve expressions of vulnerability.

     In crisis, people search for a leader who can empathize and resonate with what they are feeling—fear, uncertainty, despair, powerlessness and hopelessness. While vulnerability is a natural part of the human experience, being vulnerable is perceived of as being weak. And because leaders are expected to show that they are always in control, when faced with such crises as the current COVID-19 pandemic, we feel the need to bottle up our fears, our emotions and our vulnerabilities and simply lead.

     Tim Suttle, in his book Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture, writes, “Vulnerability is the cardinal virtue of leadership. If you are not vulnerable, you are not leading.”

     Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, once said, “The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability… When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.”

     As scary as this may sound, it is good to be confronted with our many vulnerabilities. During these situations you will become overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions of insecurity, fear, despair and even hopelessness, including:

  • I do not know what I am feeling right now as I am not really used to showing my emotions.
  • I have only been taught to understand Intelligence Quotient (IQ) not Emotional Quotient (EQ), where EQ refers to one’s ability to evaluate and control one’s own and others’ emotions. Now I am also required to understand Heart Quotient (HQ) and am expected to connect at a human level!
  • I am only human, and I don’t have all the answers right now. How is this possible, as I am always supposed to have all the answers?
  • I am failing to impress in this crisis. (In reality, this crisis is more about surviving and less about impressing.)
  • I just don’t seem to have it all together at the moment—and that’s not normal for me.
  • I feel so lonely, and it is consuming me.
  • I do not want people to “die”—not on my watch (i.e. arrogance versus humility).

Three Habits of Vulnerable Leaders

     When you are faced with these varying degrees of vulnerability as a leader, I recommend that you embrace these vulnerabilities. Further, I suggest you use the Three Behaviors Model (or 3B Model) that will allow you to accept your vulnerability as a strength and use it in becoming a better leader.

B – Built trust within your team.

     In today’s business world, employees, shareholders and customers alike demand honest and transparent CEOs that can be trusted. Yet recent Edelman Trust Barometers show that trust in business leaders is declining.

     Patrick Lencioni, author of the fable, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is a strong proponent of leaders who show vulnerability. To Lencioni, vulnerability is not at all soft—“It’s the key to building great teams,” and he uses the concept of “vulnerability-based trust” as it relates to high-performance teams.

     Leaders should be the first to demonstrate vulnerability, taking the risk to lose face. This will allow the leader to create an environment that does not punish vulnerability. Leaders who are always truthful about themselves have an opportunity to create this “vulnerability-based trust.”

B – Become exceedingly human.

     Think of the best leaders in your life? What made them great in your eyes?

     First, I would suggest that it was their HQ—their ability to connect with you on a human level. The same is true for you as a leader. Demonstrate your concern for the very real fears and anxieties that your people are experiencing, not only professionally and financially, but socially and personally. You may not even have all the answers to their questions. Just be there for them—listening and empathizing with them. Likewise, you should not be hesitant to share your own concerns with your people.

     Your people want to know that they can relate to you and that they are not alone in their concerns. People want to see you also as human. “A leader, first and foremost, is human.” Simon Sinek writes. “Only when we have the strength to show our vulnerability can we truly lead.”

     Second, the best leaders in your life did not always have all the answers, but you were okay with this. You were just glad that they were there to support you through the difficult times.

B – Bolster your coping and escape mechanisms.

     Ask for help when you are not coping. Always have coaches and mentors that you can talk to about the vulnerabilities you may be facing. These coaches can be business, emotional and spiritual coaches.

     In the January-February 2017 print edition of the Harvard Business Review, neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak set out his team’s decades-long research into how humans build trust. In the article, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Zak explains,

     When an individual asks for help, the oxytocin levels of the person receiving the request increases. (Oxytocin is a brain chemical that is associated with, among other things, social bonding.) In other words, when a person demonstrates vulnerability, others are socially inclined to assist. Asking for help is the sign of a secure leader– one who engages everyone to reach goals.

     It is also important to create an inner circle within your teams. These are people within your team that always have your back, people you trust and the people you can call on at any time and where you can just be you. Jesus had His twelve disciples but it was His inner circle of Peter, James and John that He was closest to and with whom He shared many intimate moments.

     And finally, it is important for you to have a social or physical outlet to cope with seasons of vulnerabilities. These are things that you love doing that refresh the mind, body and soul. As an active tennis enthusiast, one of my key social/physical coping mechanisms is hitting tennis balls. I hit tennis balls—lots of tennis balls—and I even envision the faces of my moments of vulnerabilities as I hit those balls. So go find your “tennis balls” and use them as an escape mechanism to deal with your seasons of vulnerability.

     As leaders, we need to start channeling our vulnerabilities into strengths rather than viewing them as weaknesses that need to be hidden in the dark. Leaders must lead from a position of vulnerability, as vulnerability-based leadership is a sure sign of a secure leader. Great leaders recognize the importance of bringing vulnerability to their organizations because it is a foundation for building trust and open relationships.

     Let us finally consider, the vulnerability of our greatest leader, the Lord Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross of Calvary. We read this account in the gospel of Matthew 27:46: “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)”

     Jesus Christ was fully God but was also fully man, and during His time of greatest despair He revealed His human frailties when He felt forsaken by His Father as He hung dying on the cross. Yet in the midst of this vulnerable situation—hopelessness, loneliness, despair, emotional and physical pain—came the greatest reward for all mankind, eternal life as children of God. “Yet to all who did receive Him, to those who believed in His name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

     Now more than ever, the world needs leaders who are vulnerable, empathetic and compassionate—servant leaders—who put the interests of others and the world first.

     Let’s take the challenge to serve well and serve as vulnerable leaders.


This article was extracted from Issue 3 (Fall 2020) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.



This article was written by Nicholas John



Nicholas John is a corporate leader with over 20 years of experience serving in executive roles within several global organizations. He is currently serving as VP Sales and Marketing for a large global corporation in South Africa. He is also the founder and CEO of LeaderGrow, an organization that focuses on preparing integral leaders of tomorrow.


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