What Exactly Is Vulnerability?


I have received several comments about last week’s blog, so I thought I would continue the dialogue.

Here are some of the questions:

  • Does vulnerability have to mean showing emotion?
  • It’s okay for a woman to have tears and talk about feelings, but still not okay for men?
  • What’s the difference between showing vulnerability and showing weakness?
  • How do we, as leaders, coach the leaders we work with on how to show up both confident and vulnerable?

Great questions. In fact, this was a discussion at my last Vistage CEO meeting and here are a few of the stories I heard from them and from others who responded to my blog. Please share yours.

“I was a relatively new leader of a high growth business. We missed our numbers one year, and up in the front of the room, I teared up when I shared the news to my team. I definitely felt shame.. and the team rallied, each leader coming up to me to commit to what they would do to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

“Having entered the two most emotionless organizations -West Point at age 18 and Marines at age 22-, in some way hardened me to emotional outward signs, and especially as a small unit infantry combat commander in Vietnam; we had to suppress and not show any emotions despite what we may have felt internally. The problem being that to show emotions to the 18-19 year old young Marines that we led wasn’t viewed as something commanders did and we worried that emotions might enter into the brutal things we had to do in the infantry…. In our generation it wasn’t considered ‘Marine like’ to show emotion—which of course led many of us to suppress PTSD feelings.”

“I have been working on culture in my company. Frustrated with the lack of progress, I stood up in front of the entire leadership team, all levels, and told my personal story, my values, my expectations of myself as a leader. Wow, what an impact it had; people began to ‘get it’. And yet, I discovered that my two senior leaders, both women, struggled with this. They said they work hard to be “professional” and to them showing or talking about feelings was weak and unprofessional.”

For all leaders, it is important to have followers trust our message. As such, there is a fine line between appearing vulnerable, yet confident, and appearing weak.  These stories speak to different ways to address this challenge.

For me it’s something like this,


Vulnerable is I am human, I make mistakes, I admit them, I learn from them and I move on
Weak is I am uncertain, I don’t trust myself, I don’t know what to do.