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The Key to Empowering Leadership: Vulnerability

By: Christine Woodward, DWEN Member, San Francisco Co-Leader, & Founder of 19th & Co

I’m writing this for anyone who aspires to be a leader but feels they don’t know how. For those
who are already in leadership positions, but want to become an even stronger guiding force for
their organization. If you’ve never thought of yourself as a leader, that’s fine as well, because
that might change after reading this post.

I am going to talk about what I’ve concluded to be the key to being not only an effective leader
but an empowering one. That key is vulnerability. More than ever, this key ingredient is
especially relevant amidst the struggles we, as a world, continue to face together. We have all
been taught that leaders are intrinsically dominant, assertive, and forceful, masters of hiding
their emotions and staying “strong”.

Yet there is more to leadership than being able to tell others what to do and putting on one’s
best poker face. The most effective leaders will be those that empower their teams to become
individual leaders in their own right. That begins with embracing traits like being compassionate,
open, and approachable so that you can earn trust and instill confidence.

What is leadership?

Brené Brown, University of Houston research professor who focuses on concepts of courage
and vulnerability, astutely sums up what leadership can and should be: “Leadership is not about
titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean
into courage. The world is desperate for braver leaders. It’s time for all of us to step up.”

So what are people looking for in leadership? According to Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer,
74% of respondents expect their employer to take action with them to help them feel personally
empowered. Often the keys to empowering employees require leaders to take a step back and
get vulnerable. You can empower employees (and coworkers alike) by being open to their ideas,
supporting them when they do struggle, and providing them with opportunities to grow, usually
by allowing them to take risks and showing you believe in them.

As an expert on human emotions, Brown cuts to the core of what is holding so many of us back
from achieving our full potential: fear. We allow fear to prevent us from having the tough
conversations needed to address issues lurking in the background. We may also fear
experiencing setbacks, shame, and being blamed for those setbacks.

Many leaders may also struggle to cope with the changing makeup of our industries as they
become more diverse and they may struggle with their own biases coming to light. Because
leaders themselves deal with so much fear, this also leads to their teams feeling like they can’t
do the same, let alone ask for help or be honest about what’s not working for them. But here’s
the challenge for everyone: let’s open up a little.

Opening up is all it takes

In vulnerability lies possibilities. In the tech and business worlds, it’s easy for us to be mired by
ideals of professionalism that are quickly becoming impossible to fulfill in a world impacted by
a year-long global pandemic, climate change, and social inequality.

As more and more employees demand increased transparency from their employers, Edelman’s
Trust Barometer also shows that trust in business leaders is declining. To change this, leaders
need to utilize the key leadership ingredient of vulnerability to allow space for their employees to
do the same.

If business leaders continue to behave as though they have nothing to lose, they may struggle to
recover that trust due to a guarded self-interest, which has long been the status quo.

One way to earn trust is by opening up and setting the stage for transparency. Leaders, ask your
employees what they think. And everyone, be candid and ready to share those bright ideas
you’ve been sitting on, or concerns you’ve been dwelling on. Share how you feel, what you need
And then leaders, listen. Really listen without judgment. Listen without letting your own biases get in the way. Listen, and then take that new information given to you with so much trust and
turn it into something good for both you and your employees. You might find that you have
entire teams full of leaders simply waiting for the opportunity to be trusted to lead.

Support is everything

We all have the capacity to lead within us. And what we need in order to explore our potential is
a strong foundation of support. No one person can do anything alone and it’s time we star
championing the leader that is in all of us. It’s important to remember that this journey is not a
zero sum game, but rather the tide that raises us all.
There is nothing more empowering than being heard, being able to tell your story, and share
your ideas.

Let us all provide each other with platforms and opportunities to highlight our talents. After
reading this, I invite you all to reach out to your teammates and colleagues, and ask them to
open up with you. Ask brave questions and have tough conversations. Ask each other for help.
Offer help! That in itself is leadership and something we are all capable of doing.
Remember, we’re all in this together and together we can all achieve so much more than we can

To start this challenge in our DWEN community, please post in the comments if you’re looking
to connect with others who want to open up about the challenges you each are currently facing
in your careers. This is a good opportunity for us to connect and uplift each other. Leaders, let
us know if you’re open to mentoring. Potential mentees, let us know if you’re looking for a

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