The Vulnerability of Strong Leadership

Mother Teresa said “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable.  Be honest and transparent anyway.”  Leadership requires some fairly strong stuff from us, regardless of our level or named position.  Whether you lead a family, whether you lead a team, whether you lead a business, whether you lead a country – honesty and transparency are vital.

Here’s one fundamental reason why:

As human beings, we have tendencies.  One of our truly human tendencies is to fill in the blanks.  And we generally fill them in with the absolute worst case scenario.  Why?  Because we’re designed to protect ourselves – it’s human nature.  So when blanks of any description are left, our brain gets to work on deciding what the possible reasoning is and how that reasoning might affect us.  This tendency is fuelled by fear, and you can imagine where it can lead us, given the opportunity.

Honesty and transparency are hard:

Honesty and transparency may be two of the hardest qualities that leadership asks of us.  They require that we state our truth openly and fully – which leaves us no space to manoeuvre if things don’t go the way you expect them to.  It means that you must continue down the path of truth you’ve chosen regardless of the outcomes or consequences, and it requires that we take fully responsibility for those outcomes and consequences.  You can see where the vulnerability comes into it.  Here is where we question ourselves in our quiet moments about the true strength that we hold when leading people.  Are you strong enough to be vulnerable?  Are you strong enough to champion truth?

What does vulnerability gain you?

Let’s go back to that human tendency to fill in the blanks with the worst case scenario, and look at the cost of leaving those blanks for the people we lead to fill in.  Leadership puts us in a position of imminent failure.  We are, after all, only human.  At some stage, something will go pear-shaped, and we’ll have to admit that we didn’t get it right.  And THEN what will people think of us??  There are herds of quotes on the link between leadership and failure, and all percolate down to the fact that failure is a requirement of progression.  Leadership and success are about how many times you were willing to get back up again after those failures.  So assuming that failure at some stage is certain, let’s look at the cost of honest and transparent leadership.

One way, or another:

There are two ways to do this – each with different costs and outcomes.

  1. We keep our cards close to our chest – giving us the greatest chance of handling hurdles as they come up and steering the ship smoothly.  Surely this option allows followers to be calm and carry on whilst we, as leaders, handle the bumps as they come up?  Our followers maintain faith in us because we shield them from the rough patches and unexpected nasties, at the same time as maintaining our serenity as a leader (at least on the outside).  Strong leadership, …right?
  2. We are honest and transparent – acting with openness and allowing our teams to follow the process with us.  As we’ve already discussed, this leaves us vulnerable as leaders to everyone knowing when things don’t go according to plan and when a new plan has to be made.  This opens us up to being viewed as having failed to call things correctly in the first place, and sets our followers up for anxiety and doubt as the journey progresses.  How, then, can honesty and vulnerability be the recommended route for strong leadership?

The outcomes of these two options may seem counter-intuitive until you factor in the afore-mentioned human tendency.

  1. When leaders are not honest and transparent, followers don’t sit back and assume you have it all under control as you may think.  If they don’t have enough information to work and reason with, their minds go ahead and….fill in the blanks.  With the worst-case scenario.  Because then they’ll be fully prepared if and when the plan fails. In essence, this is a transference of the heavy stuff from the shoulders of the leader, to the shoulders of the followers – at least initially.  When things don’t go according to plan, followers not only get to call you out on it in a “we told you so” kind of way, but (and here’s where the cost gets heavy) you’ve passed up the chance to show dignified leadership through Plan B because they now distrust you. 
  2. When leaders ARE honest and transparent, it allows followers to assess all the possibilities as they are laid on the table (and not as they have to overthink them), and holds the leadership accountable for the outcomes.  This keeps the responsibility (and weight) squarely on the shoulders of the leadership, rather than burdening the team with anxiety.  This leaves leaders vulnerable.  Not vulnerable to failure – failure at some stage is an assumed part of leadership.  But vulnerable to being accountable for the outcomes and, more-so, vulnerable to making the correct decisions when it comes to taking responsibility for and leading people through those possible failures.

The choice of leadership:

The baseline here seems to be where you allow the weight to land.  Are you willing to take it fully on your own shoulders?  To be responsible for stating the facts in a timeous and open fashion so as not to burden your team with the human tendency to fill in the blanks?  To be fully responsible for the projected aims and the outcomes, even if they are not favourable or as expected?  Are you strong enough to lead your team through Plan B; through hurdles, hiccups, failure and to retain their trust while you do so?  Or do you need them to cushion the load for you?

The Dalai Lama summarised “The lack of transparency results in distrust and deep sense of insecurity.”  Cushioning the load can be an exhausting task for your team, and it may mean that they no longer have the energy to follow you through Plan B.  It may also mean that you have made sacrifices that are exceedingly hard to recover from.  Sacrifices like trust and dignity – on both sides of the equation.

Here’s the kicker:  It doesn’t matter if you fill in the blanks with the truth later.  Distrust and insecurity are incredibly pricey to rectify.

When assessed this way, I personally feel the price of honesty, transparency and vulnerability in leadership start to look viable.

by Christen Killick

Originally written August 6th 2018.  Referred to by Columbia Southern University, Alabama in their CMC 1004: Leading Through Failure Course.

Reposted January 25th, 2021.


  1. Paul Davis on October 15, 2018 at 5:17 am

    Hi Christen,

    Well written AGAIN…… something greatly lacking in our leadership in Zimbabwe (as we are all aware). I think the real challenge is “the level of transparency” and the “timing of honesty”. I have found that one needs to really assess the lie of the land and ensure that your timing is A1 and there are certain members of your team that require that information (honesty & transparency) before while at other times, EVERYONE receiving it is important and more of a WIN/success. When you have all (most) members of the team happy to share “their story” you know that you are getting there!!!!

    Have a great week!

    • Christen Killick on October 15, 2018 at 6:57 am

      Thank you, Paul,

      Agreed – timing and the level of communication is key! I often think of the difference between how a captain and copilot would communicate over an emergency (the language they use and the information conveyed between them) and how that same emergency is communicated to the cabin crew and again from the cabin crew to the passengers using completely different levels of language and information. If the same language and information used between the pilots was used to communicate with the passengers, there’d be mass panic because the level of perspective and understanding is different for different layers of people. Consideration of the level of transparency, and the timing and content is a leadership essential. A fine line to walk to keep everyone in a trusted and safe space!

      Have a great week!

  2. Carol Ganin on September 30, 2021 at 9:45 am

    Merely wanna say that this is invaluable, Thanks for taking your time to write this.

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