Vulnerable leadership is a leadership style that emphasizes authenticity, openness, and the willingness to show vulnerability or human imperfection. It involves leaders being honest about their own limitations, fears, and mistakes, and creating an environment where team members feel safe doing the same. Vulnerable leadership is crucial in the post-pandemic world because it promotes mental well-being, fosters connection in remote work environments, helps teams adapt to change, builds trust, creates an inclusive culture, and enhances innovation.
We recently caught up with Jacob Morgan on the sidelines of his upcoming book launch on Vulnerable Leadership. Jacob is a professionally trained futurist, keynote speaker, and the international best-selling author of 5 books which focus on Leadership, The Future of Work, and Employee Experience. His passion and mission is to create great leaders, engaged employees, and future-ready organizations.
Jacob’s new book “Leading with Vulnerability: Unlock Your Greatest Superpower to Transform Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization” on Vulnerable Leadership is expected to release on October 3, 2023. Pre-order your book here
Read the transcript of our interview with Jacob Morgan on his upcoming book below.
1. Can you provide an overview of your upcoming book on vulnerable leadership? What inspired you to write about this particular aspect of leadership?
I started out with one basic question: Is vulnerability the same for leaders as it is for everyone else? It turns out that it’s not. While vulnerability cripples some leaders, others tap into it and use it as a superpower. Vulnerability alone makes leaders seem incompetent. Competence on its own makes it hard for leaders to connect with their people. The key is to develop both competence and vulnerability, what I call “The Vulnerable Leader Equation.” I interviewed over 100 CEO interviews and surveyed nearly 14,000 employees to show how leaders can tap into vulnerability to transform themselves, their teams, and their organizations.
2. Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness in traditional leadership models. How does your book challenge this perception and highlight the strengths of vulnerable leadership?
Based on the 14,000 employees I surveyed with DDI, the #1 reason why we don’t see more leaders being vulnerable at work is because they don’t want to be perceived as being weak or incompetent. If all you do each day is show up to work talking about your challenges, struggles, emotions, and mistakes, then of course eventually people will start looking at you and wondering what you are doing in your role. The best thing to do is to combine vulnerability with leadership. For example, instead of just saying “I’m sorry I made a mistake” say, “I’m sorry I made a mistake, but here’s what I learned from my mistake and here’s what I’m going to do going forward to make sure that mistake doesn’t happen again in the future.” There’s vulnerability in that, but there is also leadership. The book offers frameworks, stories, research, and insight that will teach readers how to tap into vulnerability and leadership to be able to unlock the potential of those around them, lead through change, drive business performance, and create trust.
3. What key principles or qualities define vulnerable leadership, and how do they differ from more conventional leadership approaches?
Vulnerable leadership just comes down to two things, connection (vulnerability) and competence (leadership). These aren’t new concepts or ideas but most of the time we focus on one or the other. We’re either taught to show up to work and just be vulnerable or to show up to work and just focus on doing a good job. If you only focus on competence people will think you’re a robot, if you only focus on connection then people will think you’re incompetent. The key is that leaders must be able to do both. That combination is a simple and powerful combination that we never talk about in the business world.
4. Can you share some real-world examples or case studies from your book that illustrate the impact of vulnerable leadership on individuals, teams, and organizations?
On August 20, 1991 Hollis Harris, the then CEO of struggling Continental Airlines was asked to address his employees. In his memo he acknowledged that the company was struggling, that there was uncertainty, and that he didn’t see a clear way forward. He ended his memo by telling his 42,000 employees to pray for the future of the company. The next day he was fired. What Hollis did was vulnerable but there was no leadership.
Another such leader is Fleetwood Grobler, the President & CEO, Sasol Limited, a South African energy and chemical company with over 28,000 employees. When Fleetwood took over the company was $13 billion in depth and with the pandemic the entire company almost went out of business. Fleetwood was also asked to address his employees but his message was different. He also acknowledged challenges and struggles of the business but said he had a vision for what the company could become and that together, they would be able to rebuild trust amongst their employees and customers. He asked his employees to go with him on this journey to transform the company and told them that although they are struggling and that he didn’t know the exact way forward, that together they could figure out and achieve success. And that is exactly what they did.
5. What challenges do leaders typically face when attempting to embrace vulnerability, and how does your book offer guidance on overcoming these challenges?
As I mentioned above, the #1 reason for why we don’t see more of this is because we don’t want to be perceived as being weak or incompetent. The way to fix that is to add leadership to the vulnerability. This begins by leading by example. It takes courage and boldness to step forward and to show others how to do the same.
6. Your book likely discusses the potential risks or pitfalls of vulnerable leadership. Could you elaborate on some of these potential downsides and how leaders can navigate them effectively?
The big risk that people are worried about is that a vulnerability will be used against them in some way, and it will. In fact, I can guarantee that it will, but it won’t happen nearly as often as we think it will. This is just part of life, you will get told no for a date, you will get denied for a new job or a promotion, you will get turned down for all sorts of things in life and similarly you will have things used against you at some point. However, what you do when that happens makes all the difference. When vulnerability does get used against you you can either use that as an excuse for why you should never be vulnerable again, or you can use that as a learning moment to take a step back and examine what you learned about yourself, the situation, and the other person. So the best way to view these downsides and negative experiences is to view them as learning moments.
7. How do you envision the future of leadership evolving, considering the increasing emphasis on emotional intelligence, empathy, and vulnerability
I see all of these things becoming even more important especially as tools like generative AI continue to advance and play a more crucial role in how we live and work. The one thing that technology can’t take away from us (yet) is our ability to be human. The very best leaders are going to be the ones who focus on human skills.
8. Are there any specific tools, exercises, or techniques that your book suggests to help leaders develop and practice vulnerable leadership skills?
There are many of them. One of them is called the vulnerability mountain which is the idea of creating a basecamp and then a peak. At basecamp you identify something that you can do today or tomorrow when it comes to leading with vulnerability. This could be something simple like sharing a mistake you made and what you learned. At the top of the peak you identify what’s the scariest and most uncomfortable thing you can do. Then you take steps gradually between basecamp and the peak and you begin to climb the vulnerability mountain. It’s a tough journey but it’s one that every great leader needs to make. The higher you get up the mountain the more clarity you will get, the farther out you can see, and the more relationships you can build.
9. Were there any personal experiences or anecdotes that influenced your understanding of vulnerable leadership and its importance?
I had a series of panic attacks shortly after signing the contract to write this book. At the time I had no idea what was happening to me or why. After a few therapy sessions it became clear that the reason why I was having panic attacks is that I had committed to writing about vulnerability which at my core wasn’t something I believed in or practiced in my own life. I grew up emulating my dad who always taught me to not share feelings, to keep my problems to myself and to not talk about my challenges or failures. The fact that I was now confronted with exploring something so foreign to me made my body and mind shut down.
10. As readers engage with your book, what main takeaway or message do you hope they will carry with them into their leadership roles?
The biggest takeaway is don’t be vulnerable at work, instead lead with vulnerability! Bring together competence and connection. Doing so will allow you to transform yourself, your team, and your organization.