Why Vulnerability Is the Superpower in Employee Engagement

Imagine a man standing at the foot of a stage, about to ascend the steps in front of 250 employees who believe in him, trust him, and admire him. Little do they know that he carries within him one of the most negative pieces of news imaginable — news that could put all their jobs at risk. He has just returned from a global founders meeting where he received potentially devastating information, and now he must deliver it to his team. 

This story sets the stage for a deeper exploration of vulnerability. In moments like these, when the weight of responsibility and the fear of disappointing others loom large, vulnerability becomes a crucial element in leadership. In these moments, leaders have a choice —– to hide behind a facade, shielding their own fears and insecurities, or to embrace vulnerability and open themselves up to the truth of the situation. 

Redefining Vulnerability as a Superpower 

Vulnerability, often misunderstood as a weakness, is, in fact, a superpower that can transform relationships, foster trust, and inspire change. It is the willingness to be open, honest, and authentic, even in the face of uncertainty and discomfort. It is the courage to show up as our true selves, flaws and all, and to create spaces where others feel safe to do the same.

Returning to our story, the man about to go on stage has a decision to make. Will he choose to hide his fears and deliver the news in a way that masks his own vulnerability? Or will he find the strength within himself to be honest, open, and vulnerable with his team? The answer lies in understanding the power of vulnerability and its potential to create a profound impact. 

The Impact of Vulnerability on Employee Engagement 

We know that employee engagement is crucial for the success of any organization. While there are many factors that contribute to employee engagement, one that’s often overlooked is vulnerability. This was a crucial “make or break” moment for engagement. The CEO was teetering between delivering a well-crafted speech and throwing the script away to instead be completely vulnerable. 

Is there such a thing as too much vulnerability? When does it go from being a superpower to a potential weakness? This was an important question for the CEO to consider as he prepared to go on stage. 

Insights from a Podcast: Setting the Stage for Vulnerability 

Let me pause here and share a recent conversation that possibly answers those complicated questions. During my podcast interview with a facilitator of the Dare to Lead program designed by Brené Brown, we dove into the topic of vulnerability and its impact on leadership. At one point in our conversation, we came to the questions of how much vulnerability might be too much and where the line should be drawn between self-management and vulnerability. 

My guest shared her insights on this matter, emphasizing the importance of gauging the level of trust and safety within an organization or a room before deciding to be vulnerable. We talked about the concept of “Level 3 listening” in coaching language, which involves feeling into the space and assessing its trustworthiness before opening up. She explained that while vulnerability can be a powerful tool for building trust, it may not be appropriate or effective in a hostile or judgmental environment. 

This discussion shed light on the need for leaders to develop their ability to read the room and connect with the energy present before sharing their vulnerabilities, something we train in our Co-Active courses. It highlighted the importance of creating a safe and supportive environment where vulnerability can be embraced and valued. However, sometimes a leader will just have to take the risk and be courageous — because vulnerability is contagious, and somebody has to go first. 

Leading by Example: The Contagious Effect of Vulnerability 

Have you noticed in your experience that vulnerability is contagious? When people open up and share something personal, they lead by example and create a safe space for others to do the same. This shared humanity allows people to take off their masks and interact authentically. But it can be risky. 

Another important aspect of vulnerability in leadership is admitting mistakes. When leaders admit their mistakes, they create psychological safety, allowing others to step up and be honest about what is not working. Should the CEO about to go on stage share what he could have done better in his leadership? What do you think? 

Should he actively seek feedback from his team? It can be challenging to ask for feedback and examine your blind spots. And in the case of this leader, he’s at a pivotal moment. By leading by example and inviting feedback, he might create a space where everyone suddenly feels safe to have more courageous conversations, give him feedback, and dare to give each other feedback that could turn things around. Or not… 

The Emotional Quandary: To Share or Not to Share? 

The CEO was feeling emotional before going on stage and in the hours leading up to that moment. Should he be vulnerable in expressing how he feels, really? Emotions can fuel motivation and inspiration, but they can also create barriers and disengage people if not expressed in the right way. By expressing his true feelings, he might move and inspire people — and invite the expression of the emotions in the room, from the team. Everybody might sigh a sigh of relief or gasp in negative disbelief, or at least this was his fear. Would he create space for new insights and energy enabling them to turn things around? Or would he lose the crowd? 

I had lunch earlier in the day with that CEO, and in our conversation, I expressed my belief that vulnerability is one of my most important abilities or resources to create powerful transformations. I have observed that people are eager and hungry to shed their masks and engage in real conversations, but they often feel they lack safe spaces to do so. I shared my experience of witnessing the absolute magic that happens when we design alliances and create spaces of psychological safety with teams. 

We talked about how when you intentionally create an environment of psychological safety, it opens the door to emotional, authentic, and powerful conversations that lead to true change. I told him I firmly believe that if we knew how to tap into vulnerability as a superpower, organizations and even the world would be radically different. Only through vulnerability can we foster connections, drive meaningful conversations, and ultimately bring about positive transformation. 

Fortunately, before going on stage that day, the CEO had the opportunity to be coached, and he radically changed his initial approach. Remember what I mentioned at the start of this article: his team believed in him, trusted him, and admired him. He went for it!  

Instead of trying to cover up the reality of the situation, he decided to be brutally honest with his team. He started by sharing his dream and vision when he first started working for the organization. He even touched on some of the things he had wanted as a child and how becoming a CEO was a lifelong dream for him. 

The Impact: A Story of Transformation 

In this vulnerable and raw moment, he described how he truly felt about the current situation. He admitted that the year had not gone well and that they were potentially in danger. Instead of hiding his fears, he asked all 250 people in the audience to join him in turning everything around for the upcoming year. 

The impact of his vulnerability was astounding. Instead of receiving strange looks or a lackluster response, the CEO received a standing ovation. The audience stood in front of him, showing their support and commitment to fighting for the organization’s success. Together, they were ready to not only fix the situation but go beyond what the founder could have ever imagined. 

This story highlights the power of vulnerability in leadership. By embracing vulnerability and sharing his true emotions and fears, the CEO created a sense of unity and trust within the team. His willingness to be open and honest allowed the team to connect with him on a deeper level.  

The CEO’s transformation from a speech designed to hide his fears to one filled with vulnerability, emotion, and truth had a profound impact on his team and on me. I had the privilege of being the coach standing next to him just before he stepped onto the stage.  

Harnessing Vulnerability as a Leadership Superpower 

As the coach, I recognized the weight of the situation and the potential impact of vulnerability in that moment. I knew he had a choice to make — to either deliver the news in a way that would feel safe to him or to embracvulnerability and authenticity. I also understood the potential risk. It was his decision. 

Ultimately, the end result underscored that vulnerability should be used as a superpower in leadership, but with discernment and awareness of the context. He trusted his team. Leaders must be attuned to the dynamics of their organization and exercise judgment in deciding when and how to be vulnerable. In doing so, they can harness the incredible power of vulnerability. 

Michelle Kempton

Michelle Kempton

Certified Professional Co-Active Coach (CPCC), Master Certified Coach by the International Coaching Federation & founder of Kempton Coaching & Training. Michelle is passionate about leadership development and organizational change.


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