Leadership Center

What it Means to be a Vulnerable Leader

By David Bein posted 10-15-2019 08:37


Have you ever screwed up? Maybe even had people on your team know that you screwed up? What a horrible feeling. Maybe you’ve even worked to cover up your mistake. What’s more embarrassing than having a bunch of people who work for you know that you aren’t as smart or as good as you think you should be?


If you’re going to be an effective leader you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re going to fail in front of your team. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll make decisions that aren’t the best and you’ll say things that you shouldn’t. What should you do? Cover it up? Pretend it never happened? Or own it?

What it Means to be Vulnerable as a Leader

A leading superintendent in the Chicago area has talked with her staff about being vulnerable as a leader. Rather than presenting herself as the know-it-all, always right leader, she admits that she doesn’t know everything and that sometimes she makes mistakes. Rather than making her a failure at work, this trait has done the opposite. It has solidified her reputation as an authentic, trustworthy leader—someone worth following. Now, why would admitting mistakes and showing vulnerability make her a better leader?

This concept of being a vulnerable leader was explored by author Brené Brown in her book Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.  As described by Michael Krauss in an article titled “Vulnerability and Leadership” for the American Marketing Association, “the book’s thesis emanates in part from the perspective of Theodore Roosevelt, who said, ‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.’”

“What makes vulnerability so important is that it connects us to our humanity, and through, that to others.”

Leaders can be thought of as existing on another plane. Consider the military, where there are clear lines of demarcation between officers and enlisted. In education there are similar lines between administrators and teachers/support staff. When you’re vulnerable, you show to others that you’re just a normal person like they are, despite your responsibility as a leader. Leaders are human beings who make mistakes and can screw up, just like anyone else. That connection with others can build a sense of identification and trust. You go from being a leader on another plane to being seen as an authentic human being who is understandable and approachable. When others feel that you are part of the team, it can foster collaboration and teamwork. People want to feel that they identify with one another in some way, and people will pull together when they feel that everyone is united.


Courage is an important aspect of being a vulnerable leader. When you’re vulnerable, you are risking that someone might think less of you or might take advantage of you. If you’re going to withstand that, you must be confident and courageous. Others will respect the fact that you aren’t afraid of the risk and are willing to be more open about your own shortcomings.


If you’re insecure in your leadership, it’ll be tough for you to be vulnerable. When we try to overcome our insecurities, we often manifest domineering, know-it-all and controlling behaviors. Unfortunately, those behaviors do just the opposite of what we hope. Rather than showing people that we’re competent, powerful leaders, they reveal that we’re actually not very good leaders at all. Being vulnerable, while seemingly revealing weakness, actually reveal the strength that comes with confidence and authenticity.

Tips for Revealing Your Vulnerability as a Leader

If you want to reveal your vulnerability, there are some easy approaches you can use. Start with admitting to yourself that you don’t know everything and that you’re not perfect. Once you own that, you can take some small steps to admit the same thing to others. Ask for your team’s advice. Own your mistakes and suggest what you’ll do differently to avoid the same mistakes in the future.  Ask for others’ input to determine whether your suggestions will be effective and see if they have other ideas. If you are uncertain about something, or think that there’s a 900 lb. gorilla in the room that no one is acknowledging, ask about it. These are easy ways to open the door to show yourself to others, and to instill comfort and confidence in your ability to lead. Along the way, if you want to inspire others to be genuine and to display their own vulnerabilities, keep in mind something that the superintendent I mentioned earlier told me, “If you’re not vulnerable, no one else will be.”

By Dr. David Bein, SFO
Asst. Supt./Business, CSBO
Barrington CUSD 220

1 comment



03-01-2020 16:55

Dr. Bein,

Boy, have I had some failed moments.  Middle management has been a fun roller-coaster for me and I've learned, am learning, as much as possible from each failed moment.  I just recently read How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big, by Scott Adams, and its amazing how many leaders out there have failed.  I feel almost like I'm part of a bigger group now knowing that others have struggled with failure too, and now its not that scary.  It still sucks, but not as scary.

Thanks for posting, Marcus.