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Why Vulnerability Needs Boundaries to Be an Effective Leadership Tool

Is there a downside to vulnerability? Though this question might startle champions of emotional courage like Brené Brown, it’s a topic that my two podcast hosts raised when they reflected on their recent interview with me.

While I’m no Brené Brown, vulnerability played a huge role in my career—so much that I’ve written about it in my new book, Transfluence: How to Lead with Transformative Influence in Today’s Climates of Change. I explained to cohosts Jon Tsourakis and Dave McGraw that vulnerability was a game changer for me. It was the difference between connecting with people for better outcomes and letting a company I loved fall by the wayside.

Jon and Dave debated the answer to this question, speaking about leadership styles they’ve experienced over the years. Much like every leader communicates differently, each feels varying degrees of comfort with taking risks emotionally.

For instance, Dave reflected on a CTO he worked for at one time who liked to show emotion with an element of surprise. He thought nothing of jumping on a table in front of 150 developers and delivering an extemporaneous and enthusiastic speech to help them keep on pushing. As soon as the company was sold, this encouraging leader left—and so did Dave, along with many others who missed the culture he created.

Jon mentioned a passionate mentor he once worked for who wasn’t afraid of tearing up. He was a great storyteller who loved drawing in employees and helping them visualize the takeaways he hoped to impart. In fact, Jon said his mentor would get a little misty-eyed at moments during his storytelling. Jon said his mentor’s emotions “were just enough to bring everyone to the edge of the cliff so we would grow wings and take it to the next level.”

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While one leader felt comfortable jumping on a table to inspire action, the other was at peace with a few tears to engage employees. Jon and Dave found each of their leaders personally motivating and felt that both mentors displayed the right amount of vulnerability. The two different styles of vulnerable leadership point to a clear answer to the earlier question.

There is no downside to vulnerability when it’s genuine and expressed with the right motivations. For those of you concerned about surpassing what’s considered a healthy amount of vulnerability, Brown has a simple six-word solution: “Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability.”

She explains there are two reasons you might share personal details or risk public failure at work. The first reason might be to build trust or form a connection with coworkers, while the second may be to share your burdens or unload your worries on others. The first reason is constructive, and the second isn’t.

In the end, my answer stands to the is-there-a-downside question, but it has two caveats:

  1. Is your vulnerability authentic and reflective of your personality?
  2. Are you vulnerable for the right reasons? In other words, does your sharing build trust and camaraderie, or are you regularly and unnecessarily burdening your coworkers with personal details?

I leave you with the most important aspect of this question, and that is every workplace culture can be enhanced by more vulnerability. More vulnerability means that more people are bravely reaching out to form a connection with someone else. They’re taking risks. I can’t think of a better reward for risk-taking than building stronger bonds with one another. These bonds make us better at what we do, who we are, and why we live.


  1. Steve South

    Walt, thanks for your personal example over the years of being authentic. Interesting comment that true vulnerability should reflect one’s own personality. Good to keep in mind that vulnerability does look different among leaders.

    Reply to Steve South

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