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Vulnerable leaders make great leaders

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This article also appeared in Finweek Magazine in their 25-July-2013 issue

A few years back Tim Plewman ran a fantastic theatre show called “Defending the caveman”. In his comic style, he depicted men as hunters and women as gatherers. The idea that Tim created harks back to our cavemen days when the “ugga-ugga” alpha male needed to show his supreme strength and superior genes to win mates. Luckily, leadership has progressed a long way since then, with our very own Madiba advocating the humbler principles of leaders also being followers. Nelson Mandela is the living embodiment that vulnerable leaders make great leaders.

So according to leadership guru Joe Takash and other experts, what are the key traits of vulnerable leaders?

  1. Ask the views of those lower in rank. Vulnerable leaders value the opinions of others, even if these disagree with their own views or come from more junior staff. This diversity of opinion keeps them honest and helps them make better business decisions for the company and for their people.
  2. They can admit when they are wrong and apologise in public. Ego is a fragile thing. As leaders, it’s scary to admit when we don’t have all the answers. Why? Because we think it makes us look weak and will cost us the respect of our people. In fact, quite the opposite is true. We respect a leader much more when they have the courage to concede they made a mistake and to say sorry in public. Owning your mistakes goes a long way towards winning the trust and respect of your stakeholders, be they your staff, customers or shareholders. A fantastic example of exactly this happened in mid-2011, when millions of Vodacom subscribers experienced service downtime due to network problems. Vodacom’s former CEO Pieter Uys got his hands dirty to make sure that the issues were fixed. In the height of the crisis he tweeted: “Words can’t express how sorry I am about today’s problem. Flat out working at making sure all is 100%. Pieter”.  An hour later he tweeted, “At the network switch with the engineers. All looks OK now.” His handling of the crisis was widely praised, particularly that he communicated directly with customers, apologised wholeheartedly for the downtime and was hard at work on the ground to make sure connectivity was restored.
  3. They actively seek out feedback from direct reports. Asking for feedback means making yourself vulnerable, because you run the risk of being told painful things you may not want to hear. But strong leaders want to know where they can do better. They want to hear both the good and the bad, and they really internalise this feedback to improve and become more effective.
  4. They ask customers for honest feedback on their service. In 2009, Mark Shuttleworth, open source leader and founder of the Ubuntu project, posed a question on an Ubuntu list. Not a command or a decision, but a question: “Should we think about…?” he asked. Collaboration and community are key elements of his leadership style.
  5. They tell colleagues to hold them accountable if they don’t deliver.
  6. Self-awareness. They can recognise their own weaknesses and surround themselves with people who are strong in the areas where they are not. This is a core characteristic of Mark Shuttleworth’s leadership style.


There are a lot of myths about vulnerability floating around the corridors of business. It is important to dispel these so that we can become more comfortable showing this side of ourselves in the workplace. So what exactly are the myths?

  1. Myth: Vulnerability is a sign of femininity and weakness. People often equate vulnerability with weakness and powerlessness. In fact, quite the opposite is true. As a leader, showing your authentic human side signals courage and wins the respect of others. According to Brené Brown, an author and research professor at the University of Houston, if you value courage, you need to be willing to sacrifice comfort, because courage and comfort cannot exist together. In her words: “If you are going to live your life in the arena, you are going to get your [butt] kicked.”
  2. Myth: Leaders can’t be both vulnerable and decisive, the two don’t go together. In reality, the vulnerable leader isn’t a one-size-all. They can adapt to bring out a different leadership style in different situations. They can be decisive under pressure and strong when the situation requires it, but they can also relax and be comfortable in their own skin. A classic example is Robbie Brozin, founder of Nandos. His down-to-earth, easy-going manner, with lots of swear-words thrown in for good measure, is his trademark – it also makes him more real and approachable.
  3. Myth: vulnerability means you have to expose yourself. Not so, says Brené Brown: “You don’t stand in front of people who work for you and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’” But even the strongest leaders need a trusted, closed circle of advisors that they can offload with. You need to share the difficult stuff with someone, and Brown asserts that every successful leader she’s spoken to has a small group of people to whom they can say, “I’m in over my head.” But it’s a small group.
  4. Myth: I can do it on my own. Brown talks about listening carefully to the words that the people in a company use to show if they are able to be vulnerable. Do they say things like “Can you help me with this?”, “Thank you,” and “Are you willing to give this a try?” All of these expressions signal being comfortable with vulnerability, trying new things, risking failure. However, phrases like “This isn’t the way we do things around here” or “I can do this myself” signal the opposite. “Vulnerability is terrifying and feels dangerous,” says Brown, “[But] it is not as scary, terrifying, and dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and asking what would have happened if I’d [tried]? What if?”
  5. Myth: Vulnerable leaders don’t make good business decisions, right?  Wrong. Vulnerable leaders are not indecisive, insecure managers who second-guess themselves aloud on every decision.  Rather, they have both the confidence and courage to make difficult choices. Yet, while making these decisions, they are able to ask for help and input. And it is this humility that helps them to grow as leaders and helps the company.


Today’s world is in a state of constant flux. To bring out the best in their teams in such a dynamic environment, leaders need the flexibility to bring out different leadership styles in different situations. They need to be decisive and calm under pressure and strong when the situation demands it, but they also need to be comfortable showing their human side. These are the many faces of the vulnerable leader.

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Author: Colette Symanowitz

Managing Director of www.BeatingBullies.com and www.MBAconnect.net. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @mbaconnect_net and @Beating_Bullies

4 thoughts on “Vulnerable leaders make great leaders

  1. I think leadership is both/and. Vulerable and strong at the same time. It is a great paradox. Only very few get it right!

  2. Great article – for the past two years I was an MD and a pastor! It bugged some while it gave me clarity of purpose and good rounding in the workplace because people could identify with my humanity!

  3. Thanks Nathan, in your case an interesting paradox between the MD stereotype (maximising shareholder value, all about profit and self) and pastor (all about people and giving back), almost like the corporate version of the social entrepreneur.

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