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Vulnerability is a leadership strength, not a weakness

Anxiety and stress have been on the rise over the last few years and these feelings are even more difficult to be addressed by those who are in the role of supporting and leading others.

Embracing vulnerability as a leader may seem counter-intuitive at first, but it’s one of the most courageous and transformative traits a leader can bring to the workplace. When leaders are not afraid of sharing their mistakes and lessons, they create a culture of innovative imperfection and teach others to better manage their own emotions based on how leaders handle theirs.

Creating emotional connections

While positivity can improve performance, research by Harvard Business Review suggests that trying to ignore negative emotions makes us feel worse. It can also create a gap between leaders and their teams, if there is an illusion that leaders don’t struggle at all, decreasing the wellbeing of both, leaders and employees. In addition, it creates a risk of undermining work relationships and reducing self-confidence and psychological safety in the workplace. On the other hand, sharing negative emotions can lessen their impact on the leaders, build empathy, and encourage others to open up about their own struggles.

Vulnerability in the workplace can impact the entire culture and creativity of a team, as leaders who are comfortable with not knowing all the answers and willing to ask for help from their team, not only encourage sharing and collaboration but also drive innovation and creative problem-solving. When employees see that leaders can bring up unpopular areas for discussion, they feel less anxious to talk about them as well. Leaders set the tone for what is acceptable and not acceptable to talk about in the workplace and if they are able to be open and authentic, they send a strong message that this is not only acceptable throughout the organisation, but it is the norm.

Finding the balance

Being vulnerable and showing oneself to others is a sign of courage and self-confidence, but it doesn’t mean leaders spilling out their emotions whenever they feel like it. Successful leaders know when the time and place are right to show their real and authentic selves, as oversharing every negative emotion can have an opposite effect, leading to emotional contagion – rubbing off excessive negative emotions on others. The point of opening up about individual challenges and weaknesses isn’t to attract sympathy, but instead to illustrate the human aspects of leadership and show employees that growing takes time and effort, and it comes with many obstacles.

Storytelling is a powerful tool to embrace vulnerability in the workplace. The simple sharing of stories illustrating vulnerability creates a safer space for employees to be themselves and make mistakes, and according to Google’s research, this is the type of psychological safety that defines a highly effective team. Stories of mistakes can also be some of the most important knowledge leaders share with their teams because they can illustrate what not to do.

Vulnerability fuels the strongest relationships and can transform employee performance. At Acumen, we pride ourselves in offering development that gives managers practical tools to help solve real-life challenges. We offer an extensive menu of courses, workshops and coaching programmes, ranging from communication skills through to executive leadership development. In most cases, we design the interventions specifically for each client, but we also offer a wide range of off-the-shelf programmes for those who prefer this approach. For more information about our programmes please contact Simon at


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