Dr. Brené Brown popularized vulnerability research through her years of research on shame. Utilizing vulnerability daily can “demonstrate transparency and an openness to emotional exposure” (Lopez, 2018, ix) with others. This chapter aims to dive deeper into the measure of vulnerability and how it is closely related to trust, courage, self-awareness, and three leadership styles: authentic, ethical, and transformational.

Vulnerability: Definition and Myths

Definitions of vulnerability among researchers vary but include similar components of putting trust in another (Lapidot, Kark & Shamir, 2007), acknowledging failure (Ito & Bligh, 2017), and risking emotional exposure (Crouch, 2016 and Brown, 2012a). Gambetta (1988) describes vulnerable individuals as those who instill trust in others and believe that no harm will come to them (Lapidot, Kark & Shamir, 2007, p. 17). Displaying vulnerability can also be a chance to embrace changes and challenges while feeling safe enough to acknowledge failure (Ito & Bligh, 2017, p. 67). Vulnerability is emotional exposure (Brown, 2012a) that threatens the loss “of our sense of self” (Crouch, 2016, p. 41). Cléro (2018) adds that “vulnerability should be differentiated from weakness or from the frailty that results from it” (p. 6). Brown further states that “we think about vulnerability as a dark emotion. We think of vulnerability at the core of fear and shame and grief and disappointment, things that we do not want to feel” (Brown, 2012a). Yet facing the complex “dark emotion” can lead to “every positive emotion that we need in our lives: love, belonging, joy, empathy” (Brown, 2012a).

For this paper, I will define vulnerability as “the emotion we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (Brown, 2018, p. 19).

“When a leader embraces failure and shares vulnerability with humility, followers can connect with the leader emotionally and are more likely to share feelings of vulnerability themselves” (Ito & Bligh, 2017, p.67). Some examples of actions that a vulnerable leader might take include reaching out to an employee with an ill child or family member, checking in with a coworker who experienced a recent loss, or taking responsibility for a mistake at work (Seppälä, 2014). “Collaboration, then, as a way to be morally accountable, requires a deep understanding of vulnerability: the generosity, humility, and patience needed to work through conflicts, misunderstandings, and miscommunications” (Pignatelli, 2011, p. 223).

In her book, The Power of Vulnerability, Dr. Brené Brown identifies four myths regarding vulnerability and then adds two more in Dare to Lead for a total of six:

  1. Vulnerability is a character defect and weakness (Brown, 2012a).
  2. “I don’t do vulnerability” (Brown, 2012a).
  3. “That we can create a culture in our family, in our work, and the big culture that we live in even and that we can do this alone” (Brown, 2012a).
  4. “You can trust without vulnerability. It’s a very chicken/egg proposition” (Brown, 2012a).
  5. “Trust comes before vulnerability” (Brown, 2018, p. 29).
  6. “Vulnerability is disclosure” (Brown, 2018, p. 34).

Vulnerability and Trust

Vulnerability directly involves the issue of trust (Brown, 2012a). Leaders “must be truthful and consistent in their behavior and must not regularly disregard employees’ suggestions and opinions” (Thrash, 2012, p. 4). The best place to work “is one where employees trust the people they work with, have pride in the work they do, and enjoy the people they work with” (Bush & Lewis-Kulin, 2018).

One leadership theory that directly relates to vulnerability and trust is the leader-member exchange theory. This is the theory “that leaders form relationships with their subordinates that fall into two broad groups: an in-group characterized by strong exchange relationships, and an out-group that lacks solid leader connections” (Miller, 2013). In-group members tend to be high-performing employees who take on more responsibility and contribute more to an organization (Lunenburg, 2010, p. 2). The leader takes more risks with members of the in-group, as higher risks correlate to a higher level of trust in the employee (Scandura & Pellegrini, 2008, p. 102). Yet Scandura and Pellegrini (2008) found that a leader’s trust is still vulnerable in relationships with in-group members (p. 101). The severity of the risk could be underestimated, leading to “a false expectation about the leader’s vulnerability” (Brower, Schoorman, & Tan, 2000, p. 241).

Vulnerability and Courage

“Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage. To be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, is incredibly difficult” (Brown, 2012a). “You can embrace vulnerability and enact courage to promote equity through allowing yourself to be seen, believing that you are enough” (Bettez, 2017). “Courage is contagious. To scale daring leadership and build courage in teams and organizations, we must cultivate a culture in which brave work, tough conversations, and whole hearts are expected, and armor is not necessary or rewarded” (Brown, 2018, p. 12). Brown (2012a) notes that courage is one of the significant paradoxes of vulnerability, “It’s the first thing I look for in you, but it’s the last thing I want you to see in me. In you, it’s courage; in me, it’s inadequacy. In you, it’s strength and lovability; in me, it’s shame” (Brown, 2012a).

Vulnerability and Authenticity/Self-Awareness

“How much we know ourselves is extremely important, but how we treat ourselves is the most important” (Brown, 2012a). As we grow up, “we experience pain, shame, and struggle with worthiness, we shut down parts of ourselves. And we shut down those things that make us vulnerable” (Brown, 2012a). “If I have never expected my closest family members to support or connect with me emotionally, then I am unfamiliar with the experience of being emotionally vulnerable; being encouraged to do so would likely feel prohibitive and foreign” (Chenfeng et al., 2016, p. 562). “When individuals feel less vulnerable or more secure in their relationships with others, they are more likely to let others see them for who they are” (Oc et al., 2019, p. 4).

Sané Bell wrote: “When I lack self-awareness as a leader and when I’m not connected with the intentions driving my thoughts, feelings, and actions, I limit the perspective and insights that I can share with the people I lead” (Brown, 2018, p. 179). “Leaders need to be authentic for their displays of humility to be effective” (Oc et al., 2019, p. 19). “Authenticity draws attention to who a leader is—whether framed in terms of identity, character, personality, or any other construct of selfhood” (Tomkins & Nicholds, 2017, p. 6). Sedikides, Slabu, Lenton, & Thomas (2017) define authenticity as the “sense or feeling that one is in alignment with one’s true or genuine self” (Oc et al., 2019, p. 1).

Avolio and Gardner (2005) describe authentic leaders as “self-aware and self-regulating individuals, whose beliefs and behaviors are anchored by a commitment to their ‘true self’” (Tomkins & Nicholds, 2017, p. 6). “When leaders engage in reflective practices, their own goals and performance are likely to thrive” (Seefeld, 2016, p. 54). Kezar, Carducci, & Contreras-McGavin (2006) explain that “successful leaders are authentic and behave with consistency, can read the emotions of others, and attend to the emotional aspects of the organization” (Seefeld, 2016, p. 36).

Wallace and Tice (2012) note that an individual’s desire to be socially accepted can affect whether they act authentically (Oc et al., 2019, p. 3). Individuals often show an inauthentic version of themselves at work and may opt to do so because they feel vulnerable (Oc et al., 2019, p. 3). “At the same time, our capacity and need to take action and demonstrate initiative speaks, equally, to our vulnerability and fragility, to the very real risk of inflicting both intended and unintended pain” (Pignatelli, 2011, p. 225).

Vulnerability and Gender/Identity

Fletcher (2004) reflects that traditional leadership characteristics tend to be masculine, “such as individualism, control, assertiveness, and skills of advocacy and domination,” while more modern characteristics are considered feminine, “such as empathy, community, vulnerability, and skills of inquiry and collaboration” (p. 650). While people may instinctively think of the masculine traits when describing a leader, an effective leader needs to have an “androgynous combination of feminine and masculine traits,” where men display slightly less assertiveness and women slightly more integrity (Hoyt, 2010, p. 486). Gardner (2011) finds “authenticity carries masculine connotations in connection with the Enlightenment’s rational subject,” while Tomkins and Simpson (2015) note “it can also be feminine, especially when the discourses of authentic and caring leadership are interwoven (Tomkins & Nicholds, 2017, p. 20).

When discussing the myth of vulnerability as a weakness and that people don’t “do vulnerability,” Brown (2012a) notes that statement is “normally followed up by a gender comment or a professional comment” such as “I don’t do vulnerability, I’m a dude.” “Encouraging leader humility in the workplace may not be an easy task given that many organizational leaders fear that expressing humility demonstrates a lack of competence to others” (Oc et al., 2019, p. 21).

“Despite being underrepresented, women are perceived to have more desirable leadership qualities than men” (Seefeld, 2016, p. 41). Bass (1990) notes that “women are more likely than men to adjust or ‘modify’ their leadership characteristics as they move up or down the hierarchical leadership ladder” (Seefeld, 2016, p. 100). Schreiber (2002) notes that “women continue to have perceptions about their position(s) in higher education, embracing a collaborative leadership style that can be misunderstood or disrespected, and at times, feeling out of sync with some male-dominated administrations” (Seefeld, 2016, p. 100).“We ask [men] to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear, and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust” (Brown, 2012b, p. 95).

Leadership Styles

While there are numerous leadership theories and styles, Copeland (2016) found values-based leadership styles to be the most effective in her research: authentic, ethical, and transformational (p. 79). These three styles of leadership all involve some level of risk and will be featured in the study.

Authentic Leadership

Authentic leadership is “the process whereby leaders are aware of their thoughts and behaviors within the context in which they operate” (Maximo et al., 2019, p. 2). Walumbwa et al. (2008) outline the components of authentic leadership as self-awareness (a leader’s understanding of themselves, including strengths and weaknesses), balanced processing (a leader’s ability to make objective decisions after weighing all the evidence), and relational transparency (a leader’s strength in communicating honest and genuine information as well as opinions) (Maximo et al., 2019, p. 2).

Michie and Gooty (2005) noted that emotions directed toward others motivate authentic leaders “to behave in ways that reflect self-transcendent values” (Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 318). For example, gratitude and appreciation (other-directed emotions) would motivate an authentic leader to model values of honesty and loyalty (Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 318).

While these components/traits are essential for an authentic leader, authentic leaders also have a significant impact on their organization and their followers (Maximo et al., 2019, p. 3); thus, authentic leadership should focus on the relationship between the leader and the follower too (Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 321). Authentic followers are likely to display the behaviors and traits described above, paralleling those exhibited by their authentic leader (Avolio & Gardner, 2005, p. 322). Followers may also show “increased trust and a stronger willingness to cooperate” (Maximo et al., 2019, p. 3).

As with any relationship based on trust, both parties take a risk in being vulnerable (Maximo et al., 2019, p. 3). Detert and Burris (2007) find that employees or followers may not take the risk “if they perceive these risks to result in negative consequences” or if they cause embarrassment (Maximo et al., 2019, p. 3).

Ethical Leadership

Brown et al. (2005) define ethical leadership as “the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct to followers through two-way communication, reinforcement, and decision-making” (p. 120). Kaptein (2016) adds that an ethical leader is not just a moral person and manager but also a “moral entrepreneur who creates new norms” (p. 1136). This entrepreneurship should lead to the “development of both society and the trust of stakeholders” (Kaptein, 2016, p. 1136). Brown and Treviño (2014) find that “leaders who have had ethical role models are more likely to become ethical leaders” (Kaptein, 2016, p. 1135).

A leader must be “perceived as attractive, credible, and legitimate” to be an effective and influential ethical leader (Brown et al., 2005, p. 120). Kalshoven et al. (2011) also find that ethical leaders are agreeable and conscientious (Kaptein, 2016, p. 1135). Brown et al. (2005) studied how MBA students described a leader they perceived as ethical. The results included a leader who listens, keeps their followers’ best interests in mind, is a role model for ethics, applies discipline when ethics are violated, makes fair decisions, and can be trusted (Kaptein, 2016, p. 1137).

Kaptein (2016) argues that ethical leadership is even an essential part of transformational and authentic leadership “because ethics lies at the heart of leadership” (p. 1136).

Transformational Leadership

Bass and Riggio (2006) describe transformational leadership as motivating others through a joint mission or challenge that empowers followers and encourages them to develop as leaders (p. 3). Transformational leaders tend to have more satisfied, committed followers with elevated work performances (Bass & Riggio, 2006, p. 4). This style of leadership addresses “the follower’s sense of self-worth” (Bass & Riggio, 2006, p. 4). Carleton, Barling, and Trivisonno (2018) also found a strong connection between a leader’s trait of mindfulness and their positive actions as a transformational leader.

The components of transformational leadership include idealized influence (acting as a robust role model), inspirational motivation (motivating others through a shared vision or common goal), intellectual stimulation (encouraging followers to find creative and innovative solutions), and individualized consideration (paying attention to each follower’s needs and adjusting mentoring strategies to fit those needs) (Bass & Riggio, 2006, p. 5-6). Individualized consideration is most important regarding vulnerability as it “involves leaders creating relationships with followers that demonstrate care and attention with follower’s needs and emotions” (Simonis, 2015, p. 7). A leader who applies individualized consideration tends to build relationships with greater trust (Simonis, 2015, p. 7).

A concern regarding transformational leadership is that a leader could lead their followers astray with “destructive” and “selfish” motivations, making a leader’s authenticity vital in a successful relationship (Bass & Riggio, 2006, p. 4).

Industry: Higher Education

Developing a method of teaching vulnerability would help “to actualize the goals of a higher education” (Brantmeier, 2013). Brantmeier (2013) recommends an “approach to education that invites vulnerability and deepens learning through a process of self and mutual disclosure on the part of co-learners in the classroom.” Amey (2006) “suggests that leaders in higher education should be developed not on a series of manuals or ‘how-to’ writings, but rather by understanding identities, roles, gender and race, critical thinking, and learning” (Seefeld, 2016, p. 36). Trivellas and Dargenidou (2009) found that leadership means “more than simply being a manager, but also working for the good of the institution, in and amongst colleagues” (Seefeld, 2016, p. 38). Burns (1978) explains that “leaders must communicate their professional needs to colleagues in such a way that does not simply wield power, but that also addresses the wants, needs, and other motivations at play amongst his or her colleagues” (Seefeld, 2016, p. 56). “The purpose of such sharing is to go beyond understanding power, privilege, and oppression on individual levels and dive into the murky waters of institutional, cultural, societal, and structural levels of oppression, power, and privilege” (Brantmeier, 2013). Goldberg (2001) “states that one must ‘believe that what you are doing will help people’” (Seefeld, 2016, p. 37).



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“Vulnerability in Higher Education Leadership” Plante, M.  (March 2020). CC BY 4.0



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