Vulnerability: The most underrated characteristic of a great leader


Being a leader means choosing to take on a high degree of responsibility. This responsibility is the mentality that says, “I am the person who must make this happen.” The first step as a responsible leader is to recognise that you are no longer primarily responsible for your own outcomes, but for those of your team. No longer is success about what you do, but rather about what decisions and actions lead to the accomplishments of your team or organisation.

The emotional and mental weight that accompanies this can be a heavy, and often isolating one, and the results not always positive. Harvard Business Review reported that 50% of CEOs feel lonely at work, and of these, 61% believed that the feeling impacted performance negatively.

With the knowledge that loneliness dominates at the top, how can we, as a society, drive a more open, connected and supportive culture of leadership?

Loneliness and gender

In order to be viewed as a leader and be respected by their teams, many CEOs believe they must appear certain. We live in a world where it is rarely acceptable to say that one ‘does not know’. Despite all the volatility, complexity and ambiguity in the world, business leaders are expected to be sure about their performance both in the long and the short term. This often leads to increased isolation, whereby CEO’s hide their self-doubt, for fear of exposing their vulnerability – their perceived weakness. This anxiety heightens their need to remain inaccessible rather than to connect and share the doubts that are natural to all human beings. These views are not healthy or sustainable long term.

Many times, those in leadership positions don’t feel they have a right to experience loneliness. A 2017 article by Mark Greene, claims that men specifically, have been systematically trained out of their natural ability to connect to their emotions – something that was once natural to them as young boys. This is a classic example of a “women do emotions but men don’t do emotions” moment, whereby masculine norms — the messages, stereotypes and social norms related to manhood that replace identifying as a man, are a hindrance to organisations. Men around the world are taught to hide any emotional vulnerability. This process of limiting the range of their emotional expression helps set the path toward anger and aggression – and further isolation at the top.

So why does our culture inhibit men from the freedom to express themselves openly and without judgement?

There is a range of research showing that there is not only an ‘unconscious gender bias’ against women but also towards the feminine qualities in both men and women. These unconscious biases assert a dominance of the masculine over the feminine, to the detriment of both men and women. In 2013, Google’s ‘Project Oxygen’ revealed that their seven top success characteristics of management were all soft skills, emphasising interpersonal dynamics as key to project outcomes. Years later, in 2016, Google’s ‘Project Aristotle’ found that psychological safety – feeling safe to discuss ideas, experiment, take risks, give feedback and learn from mistakes – optimises performance. This culture of interpersonal trust in which people are comfortable being themselves, reinforces how vital emotional vulnerability is to organisational success.

Grow from your loneliness

The Great Work Study, conducted by the O.C. Tanner Institute, revealed that 72% of people who receive incentives are those who ask for help from people outside of their immediate circle. This resulted in greater perspectives and new ideas on how to solve problems that they otherwise wouldn’t have imagined, had they not allowed themselves to be vulnerable.

CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz has previously spoken about the importance of vulnerability and the role this played in 2008, when his company was going through hard times. Instead of trying to take on the responsibility of saving Starbucks, Schultz helped his employees understand the challenges the company was facing and empowered them to become part of the solution. This worked because he first let his own guard down as their leader. Schultz’ story reinforces that one’s path toward professional fulfillment does not have to be a solo experience if you are willing to put time and attention into the relationships that are important to you; the relationship with yourself and with others. When you’re vulnerable and ask for help, people will come towards you.

Who’s looking after the CEO?

Although loneliness comes with struggles and sadness, it can also open the door to the next idea, opportunity, or change. To support your role as a CEO and learn to use vulnerability as a strength, we offer open dialogue sessions that form part of our Mastering Power, programme which explores the unconscious dynamics that play out in a workplace and the effects of these on employees. What’s created is a place where information is unfiltered, advice and best practices are free-flowing and people aren’t afraid to give you tough love when you need it, most.

For more information on how these open dialogue sessions and the Conscious Power programme can work for you, contact Thom at