HomeFuture of WorkThe Vulnerable Leader Equation: A critical leadership development model for successful change management

The Vulnerable Leader Equation: A critical leadership development model for successful change management

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Having surveyed 14,000 employees, Jacob Morgan found less than 11% thought vulnerability was “definitely” a leadership strength; but it is the only way to lead through change. Morgan presents his ‘Vulnerable Leader Equation’ as a method for delivering successful change outcomes.

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We all know what it feels like to be vulnerable but very few people know how to lead with vulnerability. Vulnerability is the feeling you get when you can be either emotionally or physically harmed, for most of us the former is much more relevant than the latter. So, what does it mean to lead with vulnerability? And how can leaders best create change at an organizational or global level? The answer is The Vulnerable Leader Equation.

The risk of vulnerability without leadership

On August 20, 1991, Hollis Harris, the then-CEO of struggling Continental Airlines, told his 42,000 employees to pray for the future of the company. The following day he was fired.

If Hollis was a junior employee who worked in accounting, then those statements would have had minimal impact. Some employees may have taken notice. Others would have taken him out to lunch to ask him why he was having a bad day. He would have received some words of encouragement and support from his leader and life would have moved on. When you’re a leader the things you say and do carry more weight and have more impact.

As Doug Parker, the former Chairman and CEO of American Airlines told me, what Hollis did was very vulnerable, but there was no leadership.

The Vulnerable Leader Equation

A vulnerable leader is a leader who intentionally opens themselves up to the potential of emotional harm while acting (when possible) to create a positive outcome.

For example, you admit to making a mistake at work and take action to fix it and review what you learned. You share a personal challenge or struggle at work to build trust and connection and get support. You ask for help and take action to get the necessary training required to get up to speed. The intended outcome is positive, and you act when you can.

Vulnerability creates connection and leadership is about being good at your job. The key is that leaders need to embrace both components through what I call The Vulnerable Leader Equation.

The Vulnerable Leader Equation, Jacob Morgan
The Vulnerable Leader Equation, Jacob Morgan

Vulnerability is not a weakness. It’s a superpower that will transform your life, your team, your company, and the lives of those around you. In fact, you and your fellow leaders cannot lead through change of any kind without vulnerability. Leadership is not about hiding behind a mask of invincibility. It’s about embracing vulnerability.

Unfortunately, most of the leaders around the world don’t know that this is a superpower and how to unlock it. In a 14,000 employees survey that I conducted in partnership with leadership firm DDI, we asked participants if “Vulnerability is perceived as a leadership strength, not a weakness (inside of their organizations)” less than 11% of people responded with “definitely true” while 34% said they were “uncertain” which is the equivalent of responding to the question with a response of “Definitely false” because if you’re uncertain about it you’re likely not going to be vulnerable.

How to develop vulnerable leaders

To develop leaders who follow The Vulnerable Leader Equation to deliver change and create positive business outcomes, use The Vulnerability Mountain. I will present this idea in more detail in a further article on HRD Connect but think of it like this.

Your leaders begin at the foot of a mountain. The easy steps, like sharing what they did over the weekend or praising a colleague are at the bottom. As they move up the mountain, they will face trickier tasks like admitting their mistakes and sharing personal challenges.

Each of your leaders will be at a different level of comfort with being vulnerable. The Vulnerability Mountain is a step-by-step way to approach The Vulnerable Leader Equation.

The Vulnerable Leader Equation is most effective way to deliver change

By the year 2030, our world will be home to an estimated 90 to 440 million leaders. If we consider the median of these numbers, that lands us at a staggering figure of approximately 265 million individuals steering our collective helm.

These leaders will not merely exist but will profoundly influence the lives of others. They will be the architects of societal and cultural norms and the creators of ample job opportunities.

It’s these leaders – the ones who dare to lead with vulnerability, who dare to challenge the status quo – that possess the capacity to reshape the world and steer humanity toward a brighter future.

Creating change at an organizational or global level is no simple feat. Without the right people at the helm, the prospect of such sweeping transformations remains just that – a mere prospect.


Jacob Morgan is the international bestselling author of 5 books including his most recent, Leading With Vulnerability, which is based on over 100 CEO interviews and a survey of 14,000 employees. Vulnerability for leaders is not the same as it is for everyone else so then how should leaders approach vulnerability in the right way to unlock the potential of others, drive performance, and create trust? In Jacob’s groundbreaking new book, he shares why you should lead with vulnerability and how to do it. You can learn more at LeadWithVulnerability.com. Jacob is also the host of Great Leadership With Jacob Morgan which is one of the world’s top leadership podcasts.

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