Whenever I work with a team of people and ask them what comes to mind when I say, “vulnerability,” many of the responses are either negative or related to “oversharing”. Those adverse responses are magnified if there are any current or former military in the audience. Some military folks I’ve met in my workshops relate vulnerability to weakness and, moreover, something to be exploited in an opponent. So, when I suggest vulnerability as the first (and arguably primary) mindset of the servant leader, there is considerable pushback. 

The dictionary definition of vulnerability is “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed either physically or emotionally” (Lexico 2019). Well, no wonder there’s so much resistance to this idea, especially from a leadership perspective. Generally speaking, we humans try to avoid harmful situations, both physically and emotionally. And leaders are human, so it makes sense we engage in the same avoidance at work. 

Despite the definition, I keep coming back to the idea of vulnerability as a mindset. I see beyond the definition and recognize vulnerability as sort of a path; maybe a required path to reach certain destinations or results. In other words, vulnerability might be risky and feel uncomfortable (maybe even dangerous), but it seems to be necessary to creating the kind of connection we all seek and yet find so elusive. Then, when I reflect on the twenty attributes of servant leadership, the following seem to require vulnerability from the leader: honesty, integrity, trust, appreciation of others, empowerment, visibility, listening, and delegation. With these many attributes involving vulnerability, I simply could not ignore its importance.


Vulnerability has to do with bringing our most real and true self to everything we do. It takes vulnerability to step into the ‘A’ of being a R.E.A.L. leader: Authentic. Being authentic and being an authentic servant leader, however, are not necessarily the same thing. I could argue that if simply being authentic is enough, I could be authentically unkind and meet the criteria! But since my desire was to show up like a servant leader, I had to figure out, not just how to be more authentic, but how to be a servant leader authentically. I was and am not interested in faking my way to servant leadership; I want to embody this stuff.

By authentic, I’m referring to who you want to be and how you can authentically represent who you want to be. This is not a “fake it til you make it” strategy but rather an awareness that who you are authentically today may not align with servant leadership attributes. 

Vulnerability is not only important because it helps us get clear on our desired authentic self, but also important because it requires us to work towards meaningful connection. In other words, the way we connect with people has to be purposeful and significant. Oftentimes, we find it easy to be vulnerable with people that we like, know, and trust but find it more difficult to be vulnerable with people that we loathe. The servant leader exercises the mindset of vulnerability with all. It is important to note that vulnerability is not the same as disclosure. 

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and renowned author, speaks of this distinction on her televised special, explaining that vulnerability is less about disclosure and more about the quality of what is disclosed. (Barbara Markway 2019) The importance of vulnerability cannot be overstressed here. If your desire is to grow in a servant leader mindset, learning to authentically servant lead through meaningful connection will require a mindset of vulnerability.

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