Should Leaders Show Vulnerability?


Tomorrow, Jennifer and I officially release A Governor’s Story: The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future.  It took us about 18 months to write, and it’s about 300 pages long, so, (how) can I distill a decent Reading for Leading message?  (Warning: I run a paragraph longer than usual, but beg you to reach the end and hit the “comment” button.)  The book focuses on the massive change in our economy brought on by the one-two punch of global trade and phenomenal technological breakthroughs that have KO’ed thousands of American workers in manufacturing and many other fields as well.  We have outlined what we believe are new and important ways that America can adjust to meet its challenges.  But RFL has never been about political economy and won’t be today.  Instead: a thought on modern, human leadership.

It’s a mixed bag.  Jennifer didn’t want to write puffery – a leader-knows-it-all book.  It wouldn’t have been credible.  She presided over the government while the Michigan economy was going through its worst period since the Great Depression. I encouraged, at times cajoled her/us to tell the inner story.  That wasn’t easy.

Like many great (extrovert) leaders, she’s an “outer story” person. Unlike “it’s all about me – me,” she’s all about others – like the 2700 workers in Greenville, whose jobs were moved to Mexico overnight. But in the book, Jennifer gives a peek into her own heavy-lifting.  As governor, she’d periodically startle me out of sleep, as she exhaled like a weight-lifter emitting bursts of air through pursed lips.  I imagined that in her dreams she was straining to pull 10 million people up the hill that stood before Michigan. I came to see that she was also pulling the weight of her own battered identity.  Just as factory workers were accustomed to fairly ready access to good paying work, Jennifer had been accustomed to outworking everyone and securing awesome results. This time, the results that mattered just didn’t come.

The book begs the question I ask of you: Should a leader tell?  Tell that he’s not sure.  Tell that she’s struggling, too. Tell people that (although she has a plan) she’s no more got a magic wand in her hand than the dumped workers at Electrolux had one in theirs? On the big scale such self-disclosure exposes a leader to accusations of weakness, if not to scorn. FDR, one of our heroes, remains an idol, in part because he never let the public see his crutches, and told us “there’s nothing to fear…”  Jennifer led with that type of insistent confidence; it was not feigned but real.

Yet, as Kouzes & Posner write, “leaders go first,” by which they mean that leaders show vulnerability, admit ignorance, and invite others to tell the truth, and lead themselves.  I know on the personal scale of leadership we want bosses, priests, managers, etc., who are adults and who relate to us as adults, not like old-fashioned parents who pretend that they know all and only do good.

When we let – or even seek – paternalistic leaders to tell us “everything’s gonna be fine,” and “I’ve got it all under control,” we create absurd expectations that are sure to lead to further disappointment (or, it seems, rage these days) and in turn, ironically, heighten our mistrust of leaders. What do you think? How real do you let yourself be?  How do you walk the line – offering important assurance and confidence and direction – yet inviting participation and candor? Jennifer and I have shared a story of leadership.  I hope this week’s comments will be the richest ever as you share your own stories of how you

Lead with your best self,




  • I do believe that leaders do need to show that they are real people too. That they struggle, that they don’t know all the answers. But also demonstrate leadership by standing tall, ask for input and feedback. And provide a reasonable amount of reassurance that whatever it is, the “team/company/division” is going there together..

  • Hi Dan,

    Good question. Should a leader wear his or her feelings on their sleeve? I believe it’s situational. If it’s a leader of a family, then usually yes. If it’s a manager of a small department at work, then again usually Yes. But if it’s a leader of the United States, a state, or even a pro football team, I believe the leader needs to temper his or her remarks. If I’m on the Detroit Lions, I don’t want to hear that my coach has doubts about what kind of an offense to use. When FDR was first inaugurated, we didn’t need to hear that he wasn’t sure how to address our major financial problems, we needed to hear the the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. When Khrushchev had nuclear missiles armed and fueled in Cuba, and ready to launch upon orders of the officers in the field, we didn’t want to hear JFK say he wasn’t sure what to do, we needed to hear him say that we didn’t want nuclear conflict, but that we would defend ourselves and our allies in this hemisphere.

    I thought Gov. Granholm did a great job of balancing that fine line between keeping us on track but yet not saying that everything was fine. When she said we’d be “blown away in five years,” I don’t think she or anyone else had any idea what the depths of our national financial crisis was, and how deeply those problems would impact Michigan. I applaud her for trying. Michigan is now on its way back up relative to the other states, in large part because of the work that she did.

    And I can’t sign off without saying: Go Tigers. Go Lions.

  • Showing vulnerablity is a matter of who is around you. The right people are critical. Any warm body will not due. There is a class of persons, who for reasons unknown to me, who will attack, insult, and try to replace a persons who looks vulnerable. This class of persons take advantage of and do their best to highlight and exaggerate any vulnerablity. It may be the case they want power or money for themselves. A leader must be a good judge of charactor, otherwise they will invite in the people who will take them down. This class of persons are not leaders, but dictators. In grade school they were the bullies. In sports and politics they are the ones who find delight in winning more than playing by the rules, and telling the truth.

  • When my organization’s CEO retired as our biggest financial crisis loomed, after an exhaustive search our elected officials had a tough choice which came down to 2 internal candidates. Should they choose the highly competent and educated professional who always sought new challenges and solutions for the organization whom they had appointed as the interim CEO? Or should they choose the self-deprecating “worked his way up from the bottom” friendly manager to whom the previous CEO had regularly assigned our toughest union, elected officials, and community program challenges? It was a close vote (4-3) but the officials chose the latter candidate. It was a controversial choice at the time but brilliant given the circumstances under which we are currently operating. What our organization needs now is a leader who is willing and able to talk to people on their own level then listen to what they say – and that is what we have.

  • I will always admire and follow a leader who is open and honest about her feelings and the situation she is in. I worked for a great woman whose mantra in times of great difficulty was “faith not fear”. Yet she always allowed those of us in her inner circle know that she too was struggling with the given circumstances. Great leaders are human too and part of the human condition is being vulnerable, open and honest. I think it best to show those you are leading that you do not have all of the answers etc. but that you need others too to help and in working together great things can and will be accomplished.

  • Hi Dan,
    It has been a long time. I really look forward to reading “A Govenor’s Story.”

    Way back in the middle 80’s, almost thirty years ago, someone handed me Brennan Manning’s little book, “Lion and the Lamb.” It changed the way I would ever again read or hear testimony about life, leadership, ministry, death, and resurrection. Yesterday, I read “The Furious Longing of God,” also by Brennan, nearly thirty years later, and he still knows how to call my attention to “Where the bear (does his business) in the buckwheat.”
    Because Brennan is a Meyers-Briggs INFP, as am I, his work may not appeal to the “extrovert” Governor, but I offer it anyway. I don’t think he ever uses the word “vulnerability” in The “Furious Longing of God,” but the message is there. Over the years “vulnerability” has taken on a whole repertoire of value judgments, whether positive or negative depending on one’s outlook. What I would offer is that in the absence of true vulnerability we inherit what we have now culturally, economically, educationally, and politically. We have partial leaders living and functioning enmeshed is a falsehood they can not escape.
    To be vulnerable is another aspect of being fully human. The absence of vulnerability is a falsehood; is a sham. It is brittle. It should not be trusted or relied upon by others. The absence of vulnerability is the absence of true leadership. It is not so much about doubting one’s course. It is about being open. I have always appreciated one of the supplemental examples of vulnerability, “between two fires; under attack from both sides at once; caught in a precarious or dangerous situation with no way out.” How does that describe leadership whether in politics, business, or faith? 🙂
    All the best to you and Governor Granholm. You both deserve it in so many ways.

  • The history of Michigan, as of the last couple of decades, is deplorable. Union thuggery at the forefront today. Your wife’s complicity with scams called TARP and Stimulus. Instead of showing vulnerability, y’all should be shown the inside of a jail cell.

  • Sometimes a leader must be an actor. Sometimes a leader must not reveal doubts. Sometimes a leader must display confidence and courage that he or she does not really feel. An officer leading troops into combat. A quarterback leading his team down the field in the waning seconds of the game. A CEO trying to lead a business back to profitability in a tough economy. A president speaking to the country in a time of national crisis. A leader’s expression of confidence and a leader’s dsiplay of courage–whether or not the leader actually feels courage and confidence–can actually create the courage and confidence that the leader’s batallion, team, company or country needs.

    But displays of courage and confidence do not rule out displays of humanity and humility. He or she must not demonstrate an attitude of “I know everything so there’s no need to worry.” Better to demonstate an attitude of “No, I’m not perfect and no, it won’t be easy, but together we will fight hard and come out on top.”

  • Leadership is about balance. As a manager in a government agency, I have to walk a very fine line between revealing too much personal and professional information and being totally closed and discreet. I often show some of my vulnerabilities to my staff. I am conscious of my short comings. I express humor, sadness and frustration about my personal life. I believe this cultivates trust. I am perceived to be one of them.

    However, when it comes to serious or confidential issues at work, I do not want to share everything. We have had an extraordinary amount of change in the past 3 years. This has created insecurity and anxiety about work expections. If I express fear, agitation, frustration, and anger, then my staff will most often take on those same feelings. When I show confidence and drive, they really get on board. When I share my insecurities, in a very controlled manner, my team “has my back.” They are extremely loyal and protective of me because I do not put myself on a pedestal. I am in the trenches with them.

    It’s funny. At a meeting the other day they all said they were so happy that I was their manager. When I asked them why, they said that I treat everyone the same and I am fair. Actually, I treat each one of them in a different way. I believe in tailored and situational management. They also appreciate the fact that I not only point out their strength’s, but I show them ways to overcome their weaknesses. I do not criticize…ever.

    I love my job. My goal is always to bring out the best in my people so that they can share their best with their clients.

    • Teresa,
      Absolutely wonderful exposition. You sound like an awesome manager.
      An ENFJ perhaps in the Myers Briggs schema?
      Thanks so much for contributing – both the “balance” part and the importance of how people pick up on negative energy are so well articulated here!

  • During the Great Depression (that took place after the Roaring 20’s), people didn’t have a clue that they were experiencing such a deep economic downturn. That also seems true in our lifetime, as the combination of easy credit, low interest rates and a consumption-oriented culture during the 1980s and 1990s helped fuel a spending binge for Americans until the financial crisis.

    This time around, the automotive industry and the State of Michigan played “the canary in the tunnel” role for a country now facing a decade or two of economic recession. Recognizing what worked and didn’t work during Governor Granholm’s term of leadership during an erupting economic crisis is important and critical in knowing how best to reduce the pain and suffering ahead for the nation.

    The perception of an “advanced party” leader in this economic struggle provides authentic and cautionary input to today’s industrial and governmental leadership who have the task of engineering a competitive advantage for America as the world economy spirals downward.

    John F. Kennedy once said, “The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.” Uncertainty is the watchword for today’s business and government leaders – and most aren’t prepared to lead through it.

  • Dan, thank you for sharing an incredible side of Jennifer that many including myself did not see. I want to run out and buy the book! I worked close with her for 4 years and not once did I see her inner voice yell “damm this global crisis sucks!” She was always positive, always optimistic about our future — we believed her!

  • No. When everyone else is scared and struggling, no one wants to hear about the leader’s personal struggle or vulnerability (unless it is health-related). Most people would respond to a leader’s struggle by saying or thinking, “Hey, don’t whine to me. You’re making the big bucks, and I’m unemployed. I really don’t want to hear what a struggle you as Governor or CEO are having trying to turn the economy or this company around. Just get me a job that pays one-third of what you make, and I’ll be happy.”
    People perceive that leaders have it easy. I always admired Jennifer for her self-imposed, no whining rule. It would have been an awful mistake to whine. Can you imagine Alan Mullaly, with his seven -figure salary plus stock options, complaining about how difficult it is to turn Ford around?
    When I hear my fellow judges complain about not having a pay raise in nine years, I roll my eyes. We (Michigan trial judges) make $139,000 a year, with full benefits, and with reasonable job security. If we “struggle” with difficult cases, incompetent lawyers, and shrinking court staffs, it is a struggle on a whole different level from the common citizen who just got laid off. Ninety-nine per cent of Michigan citizens would gladly trade their struggle for mine or Governor Granholm’s or Governor Snyder’s. No one forced us to take these jobs.

    Leaders need to keep their mouths shut about their personal problems and realize they have it relatively easy. Let’s spend our time making life just a little easier for the little guy.

  • Great article and it so resonates with me! It’s been said that a leader’s certainty should be greater than an employee’s doubt. It goes back to “leader first”. That being said I think as leaders, we must work through our own ‘stuff’…that will get us to the certainty. Then we can help guide our employees on their path of discovery by sharing our path of uncertainty and how we made it through…that takes being comfortable with vulnerability. We do not live in an environment where as leaders, we have all of the answers…we’re charting new territory. However, as leaders, we must gain the courage to ask the rights questions and lead by example…being authentic…being brave…being vulnerable. It gives our employees permission to be the same. It then becomes our job to ‘hold a space’ for that to happen. We’re on this journey together!

  • As a “line worker” in state government, I respect honesty. This doesn’t mean that I need all the details of a particular situation from my leaders. It means that I have more respect for those leaders who will acknowledge that:
    1. things are going to get tough.
    2. our jobs are not always fair.
    3. sometimes he/she doesn’t have all the answers, and doesn’t know when/if they will be getting any additional information.
    4. change is hard for him or her too, not just for the line staff.

    A leader who is humble and approachable enough to demonstrate that he or she is not above the daily frustrations and challenges we’re all facing, and who does not use them as an excuse to manage poorly or allow them to overide our purpose, has my vote of confidence any day.

  • Super Topic! I would say that the best leaders (and many of the ones who have the most followers) do show some vulnerability! Most of our great social justice leaders connected to the public through sharing stories of their own struggles or personally relating to oppression, which made those who are oppressed see them as “credible.” Your post reminds me of how courageous it is to be vulnerable at all in political life! Our founders already thought of this of course and created a system of checks and balances because they assumed that humans would always be perfectly imperfect whether they admitted it or not.

    Vulnerability and leadership makes me think of Kouzes and Posner too…

    “Leadership is personal. It’s not about the corporation, the community, or the country. It’s about you. If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe the message. If people don’t believe in you, they won’t believe in what you say. And if it’s about you, then it’s about your beliefs, your values, your principles.” Kouzes and Posner in Credibility

    Sometime our beliefs, values and principles come from personal struggle so sharing what we believe means sharing where it came from. I don’t think it is as much about showing vulnerability as it is about not avoiding it. In my experience, it is the best way to make a real connection with followers and to demonstrate sincerity. I speak about this topic often leadership trainings and dialogues and it is a pattern that the people who say vulnerability is never good in a leader are overwhelmingly men. Since sharing emotion is often easier for us women, this is important to talk about and I appreciate you bringing it up! I do feel really feminist about this and I hope that leaders showing vulnerability is something that we will appreciate more over time since it is more common as a feminine quality. I think some of us can’t really escape showing vulnerability if we are being true to ourselves.

    An excerpt from something I wrote a few months ago…
    When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 29, I was coaching and teaching leadership at a University at the time. I felt really vulnerable but didn’t show it really until one day when I was meeting individually with a young man (really tough guy type). He was from a very humble background where he grew up in a neighborhood plagued by violence and poverty. As a leader, he was leading some mentoring efforts for kids from similar backgrounds. While we were speaking got really quiet and started to tell me about how tough it was because every time he was mentoring those kids he was vulnerable too because they knew about his background and it reminded him of tough times he had as a kid. We started to talk about the real courage it takes as a leader to work on something that is so personal and close to your heart because it makes you vulnerable and sometimes emotional. Something just happened at that moment and I haven’t really been the same since. I told him that I hoped that I could someday have the courage to help others with cancer since I was going through it myself. I was just overwhelmed by how brave he was because at the time I was terrified for people to even know about my struggle. I couldn’t imagine being able to volunteer with others who were facing similar challenges because it would really put me on the spot. (I was thinking that I would probably just cry my way through it and not be helpful to anyone at all!) He asked me what type of cancer, I said ovarian, and he started to tear up and we both had this really connected moment (that I’ll never forget). He told me that he knew we were supposed to know each other (and I had felt it too) because ovarian cancer is what killed his mom a few years before. I realized then that if I hadn’t shared that little piece of me I would never have been able to connect to this important relationship. He gave me a lot of strength and inspiration as a leader. This made me so much stronger and more confident as a survivor that we walked at American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life together 2 years in a row! Now, I show vulnerability wherever it feels right and I don’t shy away from it because I know how much the connection could help someone else. Showing that I’m not always strong has made me so much stronger as a person. In my coaching and dialogue facilitation I challenge people to share things that really matter to them. Cancer sucks, but it’s another thing that has allowed me to really understand and connect to a whole other group of people who I wouldn’t be as connected to without letting them see a bit of my vulnerability. If this has hurt me in any way as a leader I haven’t noticed, and I don’t really care – I feel like I’m a much more authentic leader and person.

    I encourage everyone to take a small step towards sharing something that makes you vulnerable – you never know what relationships it might bring to you! Health and happiness to all! Thanks so much Dan for the thoughtful post and can’t wait to check out the book as well!

  • Self-disclosure while leading. Great article. Made me think. Situational dependent. If you’re leading a squad of 20-year old Marines in a frontal assault against an entrenched foe, I doubt most forms of self-disclosure will be effective. On the other hand, if you’re are leading civilian middle-managers (all in over 45 say) in making a tough, weighty, organizational decision that will significantly effect them all and their subordinates, then it might be effective. It just depends.

  • I truly believe in servant leadership……and it’s obvious that Jennifer does too. How can I “serve” if I can’t empathize with the people that I’m serving. That vulnerability is essential in servant leadership.

  • First, congrats, Dan, on the publication of Jennifer’s and your new book. I can’t wait to read and benefit from it. I think that demonstrating vulnerability is actually a sign of strength, not weakness, but it should be strategically deployed. When an institution is facing significant challenges, its employees and constituents need to feel that they’re in it together and that there’s a reason to hope for a brighter future. An effective leader can use his/her vulnerability to create these feelings, which will make it more likely that the organization or company will be able to move forward. An ineffective leader either pretends to have the power to eliminate the problem on his/her own (and then is revealed as a fraud) or wrings his/her hands and spreads doom and gloom (and thereby paralyzes the institution).

  • Yes. Absolutely. Because that is who I am. For others. No. I don’t think it works if you “try” to be vulnerable because of the situation. One of the most vulnerable things I’ve done is tell a direct report I screwed up something (that hurt her feelings), and “I am sorry.” she didn’t accept the apology for awhile. I apologized because I owed her an apology. A few people I sought counsel with told me she should “get over it.” this vulnerability means I might not be the best military leader (spent 13 years in the Army), but it’s who I am. And honestly, I think it’s “worked” for me thus far.
    One way I do process it all is through the lens of French and Raven’s Bases of Power. I tend to think (and empirical evidence supports it) that vulnerability enhances referent power but you may lose some expert power in the process.

  • I love everyone’s thoughts on this! Question for all those who say it is situational ie. some leadership positions should never show vulnerability… When you mention certain places that it is NOT ok to be vulnerable (military, CEO, president, etc.), I wonder if we can even imagine what these institutions would be like if leaders did show some vulnerability every now and then? Just spoke about this with a friend who has completed 2 tours in Iraq and is still on active duty and he said that every officer he really respected and connected to showed some vulnerability at some point. I’ll try to talk him into commenting here too. He mentioned specifically that with PTSD so common (and suicide unfortunately) that military leadership has needed to connect themselves to the challenges in front of the men and women they lead in order to make sure that everyone knows that it is not only ok to get help, but essential. This changes the culture.

  • Maintaining a sense of optimism in positive and negative times is a topic recently covered in ‘s article regarding the current governor’s use of positive rhetoric in good times and bad.

    Is there a point at which the “Pollyanna hypothesis” becomes harmful, in a similar way that stoic leadership where vulnerability is never demonstrated can be?

    Personally, I think maintaining a positive attitude in good times and bad can weaken the power that positivity can have. In the same way, I believe never showing vulnerability, when we all know it exists, does not demonstrate that the person is strong. Rather, it shows that the person is not able to toe the delicate line between strength and sensitivity.

  • Dan, great question. I believe leadership too often is about power and the illusion of that power’s Oz like mastery over all things affecting those in your charge. Whether you call in vulnerability or not, the truth is no one person in any organization has the ability to know all things or the capability to impact consequential change. To lead is to communicate. FDR lead by asking more of every citizen, soldier, govt employee, etc. Like many great leaders, he presented the problem, continuously communicated the need for all of us to take personal ownership and accountability in executing to the vision. Being a leader is about great communication and involving all those that touch the issue in developing and committing to a solution. If that means you have to admit you don’t have all the answers, so be it. Those who are committed won’t judge you as less, but will rally with you to inspire others to the change that is needed.

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