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  • Gloria Walski

Learn How to How to Overcome 5 Fears Leaders Have about Being Vulnerable

Updated: Apr 13

Leaders have a lot of fears. They may not admit to the fears, but those very fears may be holding them back from being authentic leaders.


John Maxwell shares a story in his book Leadership Gold where he thought he had to maintain his distance from those he led. Unfortunately, it went against his personable nature. After a few months of leading like this, “I realized that keeping everyone at a distance was a double-edged sword. The good news was that if I kept people at a distance, nobody would ever hurt me. But the bad news was that no one would ever be able to help me either.”


Be professional, maintain your boundaries, be real, be authentic…how does a leader balance all of this?


Be professional, maintain your boundaries, be real, be authentic, be vulnerable...how does one balance all of this?

There is an art to doing this right. The more you do it, the easier it gets. It might be harder for some to do than for others, but I encourage all leaders to make it a habit to be vulnerable.


What is Vulnerability?


First, let me explain vulnerability and why people don’t like to be vulnerable.


As John Maxwell alluded to in his story, being vulnerable opens one up to be hurt.

Vulnerability is viewed as a weakness. It’s something that can be attacked, damaged and destroyed. People are vulnerable when they’re exposed. It’s uncomfortable to be vulnerable and no one wants to be exposed with the potential to be hurt.


Being vulnerable opens one up to be hurt.

Vulnerabilities can be physical. Picture being naked and having what is usually private completely out in the open. Imagine riding a bike without a helmet and leaving your head unprotected.


Vulnerabilities can be of the emotional variety. You are emotionally vulnerable when you enter a new romantic relationship and give the other person the ability to break your heart.

Being emotionally vulnerable is more frightening than being physically vulnerable.


It’s Vulnerable to be in the Spotlight


People in positions of leadership are already vulnerable to begin with. By virtue of their position, they are out there for others to scrutinize and criticize.


We see this with politicians and celebrities. They are in the media and therefore in the public’s eye at all times. Their fans and critics all love to say something about them. While some of them may like being in the spotlight, the level of interest in what they’re doing, wearing, eating, saying and how they’re behaving is relentless. If the public finds something hypocritical, controversial or disappointing, then it’s all over social media. And the public can be ruthless!


Simone Biles, considered to be one of the greatest gymnasts in history, had the courage to admit a vulnerability.
Simone Biles. Photo Credit: https://olympics.com/en/athletes/simone-biles

Simone Biles, considered to be one of the greatest gymnasts in history, had the courage to admit to a vulnerability. She withdrew from the 2020 Summer Olympics because she recognized a problem. She identified she had the “twisties,” a situation where gymnasts lose control of their bodies mid-air due to a mental block. She recognized the danger of pushing through (it wasn’t about the medal - landing wrong could be a life-altering event), so she opted out of the competition. This was met with people lauding her willingness to admit a weakness in front of the entire world, but it was also met with people who said she was being a quitter or weak. All of the reactions made her uncomfortable, but it took a lot of courage for her to admit she needed to bow out.


I think it’s important for people to have the strength to admit when they need to take a moment. Imagine if your surgeon knew something wasn’t right with him but proceeded with the procedure anyway and ended up making a mistake. If instead, he said, "Something's not right, I'm not comfortable doing this today," would you criticize him for being a quitter?


Leaders know there will be some sort of spotlight on them, which means everything they say or do will be examined and discussed by others. Perhaps as a defense mechanism or mitigation technique, some leaders hide their vulnerabilities to give people less to talk about.


Leaders are in the spotlight, automatically making them in a position of vulnerability.

Understanding Fear of Vulnerability


Below are a few reasons why leaders might fear being vulnerable. Understanding these fears can help you be more comfortable with being vulnerable.


1. Being Imperfect: Some leaders feel the need to be perfect. Or at least appear to be perfect. So they hide their vulnerabilities and refuse to admit when they’re wrong, or when they don’t know something.


Leaders are expected to a know a lot of things but they won’t know everything. It’s an unrealistic expectation to think someone should know everything, so don’t put this pressure on yourself or others. Give yourself grace if you feel this internal pressure to be perfect. People are more forgiving than you probably realize.


Be confident and humble enough to say, "I was wrong." It will increase, rather than decrease, your personal stock in the eyes of others. Deborah Smith Pegues

Start with being willing to admit when you don’t know something or when you make a mistake. As Deborah Smith Pegues describes in her book Lead Like a Woman, “Be confident and humble enough to say, ‘I was wrong.’ It will increase rather than decrease your personal stock in the eyes of others.”


2. Losing Control: There are people in positions of leadership who fear losing control if they show weakness. This fear finds its roots in insecurity. They aren’t secure in their leadership positions and fear getting usurped by someone else who is better or more knowledgeable at something. There’s also a fear of losing control if they have to trust someone else’s expertise to accomplish something.


Leaders fear losing control.

Leaders must learn to accept that they won’t be the best at everything and be secure enough to trust their experts. They aren’t losing control because they defer to an expert. In fact, leaders should rely on their experts and leverage the strengths of their team members.


If this is a fear you have, work on your self-confidence and acknowledge you’re not going to know everything or be the best at everything. Take pride in the fact that you have members on your team who are exceptional at a particular skill. Empower them to teach you what you need to know and learn with an open mind.


3. Being Disliked. I think it’s normal to want to be liked. People who care too much about what other people think will put on the facade or persona they think will make them most likable. Perhaps they fear their true selves are unlikeable, so they pretend to be someone they’re not. Sadly, leaders who try too hard to make people like them end up pushing more people away because they’re not being their authentic selves.


The reality is, you are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Why not have the courage to be yourself? As Brené Brown points out, “Courage…requires vulnerability and the willingness to let go of what other people think, and for most of us, that’s scary.”


Courage sounds great, but we need to talk about how it requires vulnerability and the willingness to let go of what other people think, and for most of us, that's scary. Brene Brown

Work on loving who you are, flaws and all. When you learn to accept yourself, others will be happy to accept you too.


4. Getting Hurt: Leaders don’t want to talk about the things that make them vulnerable because they’re afraid this information might get used against them. Or they fear getting criticized for their vulnerabilities.


How to overcome fears about vulnerability.

Leaders should be self-aware enough to know what their shortcomings are. They should not only acknowledge them, but be willing to improve them.


Make your ability to be vulnerable a strength. Similar to the above, be proud of who you are, flaws and all. Mentally prepare yourself for the naysayers - there will always be those who want to be negative for no other reason than to be negative. And finally, avoid getting hurt by not valuing someone else’s opinion of you more than the opinion you have of yourself.


5. Losing Other Peoples’ Respect: Leaders may fear being real will make people stop respecting them. And if they did something immoral, unethical or illegal, they do risk losing other peoples’ respect. This is similar to the fear of not being liked.


Some leaders don’t like to admit they’re facing difficulties with mental health, or that they have an addiction. And while there’s no reason they should discuss it openly, if something like this begins to affect their ability to lead, they need to be willing to ask for help. Yet, leaders fear the act of asking for help will lower their respectability in other peoples’ eyes.


In fact, it’s likely the opposite that would happen. If you’re going through a vulnerable period in your life and you need help, ask for it. At the end of the day, you need to respect yourself. You do this by taking care of yourself, being self-aware and owning who you are. If you respect yourself, other people will respect you too.


The Ability to Acknowledge Struggles and Limitations is a Strength


If you fear being vulnerable, examine why that may be. Ask yourself what’s the worst that could happen if you were vulnerable. Then figure out what positive things could result from being vulnerable.


Acknowledge the things in your life that have or continue to challenge you, whether they're difficult relationships, bad choices, physical ailments or internal struggles. Admit when you don't know the answer to something and have the humility to say, "I made a mistake."


You will be a better leader for understanding your fears of vulnerability.


Comment below and share your stories of how you faced your fears about leading with vulnerability.

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Hello, my name is Gloria. Welcome to my blog! I have over 20 years of experience as an Air Force officer and health care administrator. I've successfully held positions of leadership at many different levels and I am passionate about leadership development. I enjoy coaching people and helping them achieve their personal and professional goals.

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