The Vulnerable Leader Equation

Welcome to the Innovative Leadership Newsletter, brought to you by the Innovative Leadership Institute, where we bring you thought leaders and innovative ideas on leadership topics each week.

This week’s article is written by Jacob Morgan, author of Leading with Vulnerability: Unlock Your Greatest Superpower to Transform Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization. It is a companion piece to his interview on Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future titled The Strength of Vulnerability which premiered on October 3, 2023. 


Short clip from the interview:

Link to the entire interview:

Listen to the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future via Apple PodcastsTuneIn, Spotify, Amazon Music, AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One.

My parents relocated to the United States from The Republic of Georgia, which was a part of the former U.S.S.R. They both fled at the same time because they didn’t feel safe or free, but they didn’t actually meet until they both arrived in Italy. My grandmother actually introduced the two of them! From Italy, they ended up in Australia and then in America.

My dad was obsessed with the “American Dream.” He changed his last name to “Morgan” to sound more American because nobody was able to pronounce his real last name, Mamisashvili, over company loudspeakers. 

He moved to the United States first to set up a life before my mom and I joined him from Australia. For several years my mom and dad communicated with each other by sending letters in the mail. He learned to speak English by watching the Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin shows with an English-to-Russian translation dictionary. He would spend hours each day looking in the mirror and trying to mouth out English words properly while he lived in low-income housing in New Jersey. 

He just retired from the corporate world after working for decades as an aerospace engineer, where he commuted an hour and a half to and from work each day (during Covid he worked from home). My dad still sometimes makes the commute just to play soccer with some of his co-workers; he’s 73. My mom is one of the top marriage and family therapists in Los Angeles, and they live 15 minutes away from me.

When you’re surviving like my family was, there is no room for weakness. You have to be strong and tough. My mom has always been more open and encouraging of vulnerability and emotion, but ultimately I grew up watching and emulating my dad, who doesn’t believe in a trophy for a second place. I remember one time, after a soccer tournament, my dad and I drove to the coach’s house to pick something up. I must have been around ten years old. We knocked on the coach’s door, and he handed me and my dad a trophy. My dad looked at the coach and said, “What is this trophy for, they came in last place?” The coach said that they were giving participation trophies so kids wouldn’t feel left out. My dad chuckled and said, “That’s bull****; you can keep the trophy,” and we got in the car and left. This was an important life lesson for me, and it taught me the importance and value of hard work, life doesn’t give participation trophies and it doesn’t care about your problems.  

My dad always told me that the world is a jungle and that as a man you always need to be strong and highly competent. Never show weakness under any circumstance, nobody cares about your problems so don’t share them, and always be good at what you do, or more specifically, try to be the best at what you do. 

That’s how I lived my entire adult life until a few years ago when I had a series of panic attacks.

Like you, I had heard of vulnerability and had an idea of what it was, but was it really that simple? I felt like most of what I was reading and seeing made it sound like if you just share your weaknesses and challenges then your problems will go away. Perhaps that’s a decent solution in your personal life but what about at work which has a completely different dynamic? At work you have hierarchy, employees, customers, deadlines, a boss, and the issue of money. And what if you’re a leader who is actually responsible for the lives of other people and the fiscal side of a business?

After interviewing more than 100 CEOs and conducting a survey of 14,000 employees in partnership with DDI, it became clear that vulnerability for leaders is not the same as it is for everyone else.

On August 20, 1991 Hollis Harris, then CEO of the struggling Continental Airlines, sent out a memo to his 42,000 employees. He acknowledged that the company was facing challenges and didn’t share that he had a way forward to turn things around. He ended the memo by telling his people that the best thing they could do was pray for the future of the company.

That was vulnerable, but where was the leadership?

If Hollis was a junior employee who worked in accounting, then those statements would have had minimal impact. Some employees may have taken notice, maybe some would have taken him out to lunch to ask him why he’s having a bad day, and 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.

Another such leader is Fleetwood Grobler, the President & CEO, Sasol Limited, a South African energy and chemical company with over 28,000 employees. When he took over as CEO the company was $13 billion in debt and was about to be taken over by the banks. He too had to address his employees but his message was different. He acknowledged the challenges of the business and admitted that he didn’t know the exact path forward. But, he said he has a vision of what the business can become and he believed in the talent of the people who worked there. He said that together they can rebuild trust amongst their customers and employees and if they work together to come up with a plan to achieve his vision, that they would be able to turn the business around…and that’s exactly what they did.

Fleetwood was vulnerable, but he added leadership.

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

To be a vulnerable leader you need two things, vulnerability and leadership. I call this The Vulnerable Leader Equation:

Too often we use vulnerability as a way to justify poor performance but the best leaders are able to bring together both competence and connection…leadership and vulnerability.

If you want to learn how to do that then check out my new book, Leading with Vulnerability: Unlock Your Greatest Superpower to Transform Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization.



After graduating with honors in business management economics and psychology from the University of California Santa Cruz, Jacob was excited to join the corporate world. At his first job he was told that he’d be traveling the country, meeting with executives and entrepreneurs, and doing all sorts of exciting work. A few months in, he was stuck doing data entry, cold calling, and PowerPoint presentations. One day the CEO came out of his nice corner office, handed Jacob a $10 bill and said, “I’m late for a meeting, go grab me a cup of coffee, and get something for yourself as well.” That was the last corporate job he ever had.

Today, Jacob Morgan is a trained futurist and one of the world’s leading authorities on leadership, the future of work, and employee experience. He speaks in front of tens of thousands of people each year and his content is seen over a million times a year. Jacob is the best-selling author of five books: Leading With Vulnerability (Wiley, 2024), The Future Leader (Wiley, 2020) The Employee Experience Advantage (Wiley, 2017), The Future of Work (Wiley, 2014), and The Collaborative Organization (McGraw Hill, 2012). He speaks at over 50 conferences a year including TED Academy which is one of the largest TED events in the world. In addition, Jacob provides advisory and thought leadership services to various organizations around the world.



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Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership: Co-Creating Our Future on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple PodcastsTuneInSpotify, Amazon Music, AudibleiHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Also, stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute on LinkedIn.

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