vulnerability lessons to make you a better leader
blog post | news + business

6 vulnerability lessons that’ll make you a better leader

In my last blog post, I let you into my heart and shared the personal story about the time my bladder almost fell out. I also touched on the benefits of being vulnerable in leadership. As promised, this article is the second part of the series and focuses on how you can be more vulnerable and apply the vulnerability lessons I’ve learned after over a decade in management. We can remove the veil of shame and open the door for true vulnerability—and, with it, all the surprising benefits it brings.

What is vulnerability?

Brene Brown says vulnerability has three key components: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. I’ll let her do the talking:

I would argue that vulnerability is our greatest measure of courage… Vulnerability is the first date after my divorce. Vulnerability is starting my own company. Vulnerability is taking responsibility for something that went wrong at work. Vulnerability is sitting with my wife who has stage 3 breast cancer and making plans for our young kids. Vulnerability is about the power to show up and be seen even though there are no guarantees.

You’ll notice that vulnerability is far less about how our brands talk online and much more about how we, as individuals, behave with each other—online and offline.

How to be vulnerable in relationships as a leader

If we want vulnerability-based leadership to be safe, as a community, we need to make it safe. That’s just the truth. As marketers, we have the opportunity to set trends in ways that no other professionals do. Many people say, “There’s nothing I can do about that” when looking at complex, global issues. However, this is not one of those times.

We are marketers. Our content is distributed through the largest and most effective social conditioning engine in the world. We intentionally and unintentionally influence the world and decide what is and isn’t acceptable in society. We absolutely have the power to help remove shame and judgement from people’s minds, and the good news is that we’ve already started.

As leaders, we have the power to shape everything we produce by maintaining balance within our marketing community. When vulnerability, acceptance, inclusion, and sincerity become our norm, they’ll transform the world.

1. If you lead, they will follow

Have you ever noticed that things are taboo until they aren’t? One day, something is completely off the table. A month later, something happens in the news that makes that topic okay to talk about openly. The truth is that most of society follows the pack. We, as leaders, set the direction that they follow. Every topic that was taboo and now isn’t has a story of courageous leadership behind it. Some brave person came out and shared their story in a way that inspired others and made it safe to talk about. This type of vulnerability based leadership happens in every moment. If we want to inspire vulnerability, we must be vulnerable.

The first step may not be to go on Facebook Live and share your raw truth or the details of a personal medical event like I did. But you can at least start sharing where you feel most safe—share with your friends and family with the intention of building up the courage to step out of that cold, uninviting cage of vulnerability. With each share, take note of where you feel fear and where you feel shame. Confront your shame. Look at your fear. Thank them. Check your boundaries, situational appropriateness, and motivation. And when you are clear that you have the right intention and the right story, share it. That’s the key.

To eliminate shame, we must face it. There is simply no other way. Work your way up to being more courageous in the face of vulnerability in the office by sincerely sharing your truth. One of the most compelling things I found by sharing my story so openly was that every time I released a new Facebook Live, I would receive at least one message thanking me. Often, the message was from an executive struggling with depression, infidelity, or other “shameful” subjects that I had created a space to discuss. The overwhelming feedback was positive, and I still get messages from others saying they miss my morning talks and ask when they will start again.

The real power of this story is found at the office a few days after I talked openly about my upcoming hysterectomy and anticipated workload decrease. Another team member came over and shared her experience with anxiety and how she’s trying to find the right medicine for it. She shared about how traffic in the morning can be enough to cause her to go into a panic and that she doesn’t know how to cope with it. I offered two simple techniques I’ve used to manage anxiety without medication, and she left feeling empowered with a new tool in her pocket.

Did it work? I have no idea, but what I noticed is that she shared her diagnosis in an open office environment surrounded by dozens of her teammates with full confidence that our team would never judge her.That’s what an inclusive culture of acceptance looks like.

Another male team member and I laughed openly about the name of my surgeon and how he was going to build me bionic lady parts. The day before, he had asked me for one-on-one mentorship for developing client strategies, another one of my personal superpowers. Part of my mentorship includes sharing about my ability to be vulnerable. Overall, I’ve found that the more authentic and vulnerable I am, the more people respond with respect and genuine connection. I’m finding that, in fact, courage in me leads to courage in you.

Anything that tells us some topic is off limits is ripe for review. If you can’t communicate with honesty and respect in the office about anything, then you need to take a close look at the maturity of the team’s communication skills. There’s something to be said for fostering civil discourse in the office, no matter what the subject. If we feel safe to speak, we will. And the safer we feel, the easier it will be for us to focus when it’s actually time to work.

2. Triggers, begone; Calm, restored.

We all have triggers that cause our body to jump, our mind to race, and our heart to palpitate. Triggers are emotional responses felt in the body. In fact, almost all of my emotions have a physical trigger. After tracing the process of an emotional response, I’ve found that first I feel something. Then, my mind tries to explain it.

If we want to be leaders of vulnerability, we first need to learn how to feel in public and regain control over our emotional responses. Imagine yourself sitting in front of someone who is telling you a story of doing something so reprehensible that your face can’t help but contort. That is not the face of vulnerable leadership. That is the face of judgement.

Let’s start with the physiology of what’s happening in your body when you’re triggered. The first thing we do is feel an emotion. Then, many of us immediately hold our breath. This behavior deprives our brain of oxygen and kicks in our reptilian brain, the part of the brain that controls all of your body’s vital functions. It’s the part of your brain that also kicks in during fight or flight. And it kicked in for one reason: You stopped breathing.

There is tons of research on how ineffective we are at decision-making when we are in fight or flight mode that I won’t bother to belabor here. You know this to be true because you’ve experienced it—that moment when you were totally okay and then all the sudden snapped and lost your cool.

Here’s a surefire way to clear your triggers as they arise so you can remain calm, cool, and collected no matter what happens: Breathe. Seriously—just take six slow, full breaths. Science proves that the second you get oxygen back to your brain, you will also regain your faculties and be able to respond with composure. This breathing exercise does take practice, so I highly encourage you start practicing today, before you need it.

When you notice that you have an emotion of any kind, take a slow, controlled breath in through your nose and out through your nose. Take those six slow breaths and watch how you feel afterwards.

Now, look at that emotion again. What was it? What could’ve caused it? When have you felt it before? When was the first time you ever felt it? I’ve noticed that slow, controlled breathing is one of the best tools for managing any kind of stress in my life. It is also what enabled me to find calm when I was in a legitimate health crisis. So please, honor yourself and train yourself to breathe in response to stress. And start digging in to uncover your own wellness (or lack thereof).

Schedule fear; remove uncertainty

Part of the reason we avoid vulnerability is that it’s scary. Let’s be honest: If it isn’t scary, it isn’t a contributor to our vulnerability. There are plenty of daredevils in the world who use fear as a primary motivator for their latest achievement. Yet, for the majority of us, we simply don’t live in an environment with a lot of “true” things to fear. We don’t (generally) have to worry about a lion bounding through our office door and snapping our neck. Most of us are learning how to cope with perceived fear, rather than actual danger. Living in a state of constant fight or flight from perceived fear creates stress, anxiety, depression, and more. The most effective way we can bring ourselves into a positive relationship with fear is to schedule it.

Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Work Week and one of the world’s most transformational entrepreneurs, released a TED Talk titled Fear-Setting: The Most Valuable Exercise I Do Every Month. In it, he openly talks about his bipolar depression and the 50+ suicidal episodes he has managed to survive and how. He says, “The tool I’ve found which has proven to be the most reliable safety net for emotional free fall is actually the same tool that has helped me make my best business decisions. And it is stoicism.”

Stoicism is a process that involves learning the difference between the things you can control and the things you can’t. It’s a key to building resilience in the face of adversity. Ferriss details how he uses a process of visualization to imagine the worst-case scenario so he can face and resolve his preliminary emotional response to it. The truth is that our perceived worst-case scenario is rarely anywhere close to the most likely outcome. However, our emotional overwhelm in the face of fear is very real. He explains that to build resilience in the face of fear he schedules opportunities for him to actually face his fears, every month.

Now, you might think that means he’s a thrill-seeker and schedules himself to do high-adventure activities, like skydiving or lying in a bed of snakes. He has done those types of things, for sure, and we should all experience that crippling fear so we know we can survive it. However, he also explains how doing something as simple as going out in public in a pair of crazy, patterned pants can have the same effect of showing us how to become comfortable with fear. The key is that you have to face something you actually fear at least once a month.

3. Face rejection; create acceptance

The truth is that one of our largest fears is not being accepted by our peers, so these types of exercises in vulnerability create a huge impact in the office and at home. How well we respond to the things that trigger fear and anxiety is the mark of good leadership and the mark of living an inspired life. Leaders who know how to take a breath and balance their emotional responses in a crisis are capable of leading people to greatness despite all circumstances. Ferriss uses examples such as Bill Belicheck, the Founding Fathers, and other notable leaders who have stood in the face of fear and were able to transcend it through stoicism.

Imagine how strong you will be when you have exercised and built up the fear muscle over the course of a few months and even years. Personally, I’ve found that fear quickly loses its power in the face of frequency. I can look at fear and recognize it as an emotion, breathe, and think logically to quickly ascertain whether it’s something actually worth fearing. It almost never is.

I also discovered something powerful that I believe is a result of my willingness to embrace fear on a regular basis. At that moment when I was lying face down on the floor and going into shock, I didn’t go into fight or flight. Instead, I found myself in a different place. I found myself calm. Resilient and calm. I was able to see what needed to happen and communicate it with clarity. I realized that my level of calmness is a direct indicator of how large the threat I’m facing actually is. And to be honest, it has become one of my greatest leadership superpowers.

I’m still looking for the perfect opportunity to implement this within a team, as I can only imagine the power of facing fear and transcending it together every month. Want to try it with me? It will definitely be uncomfortable. But it will definitely be worth it.

4. Break the rules of social taboo

Look, I get that there are heightened sensitivities in the workplace. We’ve all read the stories of sexual harassment, discrimination, and unconscious bias leaving employees feeling unsafe at work. A large contributor to the abuse of power is silence. The reason we’re silent is that we fear the repercussions of speaking up. The best way to quell that fear is to understand when it’s okay to “break the rules.”

I’m not talking about breaking your company’s rules. I’m talking about breaking the rules of social taboo when it’s natural and appropriate to do so. For example, as a feminine leader, I open the door for all conversations and make it known that I offer a safe, judgement-free space. I’ve held space for conversations about everything from addiction to breaking the law with employees who needed someone to talk to when they didn’t feel like they could confide in anyone else. It’s common for someone to start telling me their deepest, darkest secrets within an hour of meeting. I’m still learning why.

It would’ve been incredibly easy for me to not talk about my hysterectomy because it might offend someone to talk about my lady parts, despite every female in an office having them. And yet, the power wasn’t found in keeping it to myself. Instead, as I shared what was happening, I also shared that I had to face my shame and made a conscious choice to discuss it openly. As it was relevant, I also shared how important I believe it is to create a forum for others to openly discuss things that may traditionally carry shame. The best way I know how to do that is to share first, often with more detail and honesty than most expect. It’s unlikely anyone could out-vulnerable me at this point.

However, I would love for you to try. Consider what your most vulnerable story to share in the office is and ask yourself, “Is there value in being more open and honest about this at work?” For some things, the answer will be a resounding no. And for others, there will be a clear yes. And for others, it may be an “I don’t know.”

If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find that the one you want to chalk up to a hard “no” is really a “yes”—and it’s the nugget you’re looking for. You’ll have an internal battle over your yes or no. You’ll have to stop and breath through it once, twice, and even multiple times. You may have to journal through it. You may have to meditate. You may have to talk through it with a mentor.

That’s when you know you’ve found it—when it requires thoughtful consideration. It can be your story of addiction, abuse, mental wellness, divorce, or something else you’ve been struggling with or overcome. I assure you—if you are dealing with it, someone else in the office is, too. There is power in a community. And we all have something we are working on healing, right now, in this very moment.

5. Preventing legal recourse

I want to draw attention to male leaders reading. I absolutely hear you when you tell me you have fears of being accused of sexual harassment in the office for discussing what some consider private things. I fully acknowledge that a masculine leader sharing a story of similar impact to my hysterectomy could be viewed totally differently by feminine subordinates and is more likely to be considered crossing the line than if the same story were to come from a feminine leader.

It’s a double standard that I hope we can all rise above. I have worked for many masculine leaders who have crossed the line of what some could call sexual harassment based on subject matter alone. However, in context, there was absolutely no breach of power—we were simply discussing a topic of sexual, religious, political, or medical nature. Topics that have been office taboo for decades.

Offending someone and harassing someone are two very different things. For it to be sexual harassment, there has to be an abuse of power. Remember to never abuse your power. And always use your best judgement to determine whether an employee is open to having a conversation.

Every employee wants an understanding and empathetic leader whom they can trust. Vulnerability isn’t about walking around spewing your personal story to anyone who will listen. If you’re that leader, there’s a much lower chance someone will take offense to how you approach sharing your vulnerability, especially when you open with, “This is a really vulnerable thing for me to share. I appreciate your forgiveness if I get it wrong the first time.” In fact, it’s much more likely you will garner even more respect and appreciation from your team, regardless of your gender.

For all the feminine leaders reading, it’s important that we start to raise the bar for objectivity within the feminine corporate collective. We are just as likely to abuse our power and to not be held accountable for doing so. We do it in different ways. Our politics, passive-aggressiveness, and behind-the-scenes gossiping are not harmless.

I would argue that we have significant abuses of power to deal with within the feminine ranks. In many ways, we have become our worst enemy. When there is an abuse of power, we must be the ones to call it out and address it, regardless of the gender of the abuser.

It doesn’t mean shaming the abuser. Rather, it means taking the time to understand the story on both sides of the equation and offering empathy, compassion, and support while taking the appropriate action with HR to respect the safety of employees. We demonstrate our femininity when we show up with compassion in our words and kindness in our hearts.

I could write an entire piece on why abuses of power happen and what it demonstrates we’re healing from, but I’ll save that for another day. Everyone—even you. Our greatest power comes when we learn how to navigate the complex world of emotions in the office with grace and compassion while being true to ourselves and sincere with our teams.

6. Resolve toxicity directly

Ultimately, what we all fear is that one person who is easily offended and finds something wrong with everything anyone does in the office. These employees are not only libelous but also toxic—and trying to heal. If you can find your compassion and empathy while offering them resources to help them move past their drama, you may be surprised at how many are simply begging to be seen and to know that their contributions are valued.

With the right tools, these employees can become some of your brightest examples of transformation. For those who can’t move past their drama, it’s important to help them move on to something else where they can be successful. At the end of the day, that’s what we all want: to feel successful and valued.


Vulnerability and leadership are evolving for the better. We can finally be our true selves at work and build authentic relationships within our teams. The more we step into these vulnerability lessons and face our fears, the easier it will get.

  1. Break the rules when they get in the way of an authentic relationship with your team.
  2. Let employees know how valuable their contributions are.
  3. Let your team know how important it is to you that they be genuinely happy, inside and outside of the office.
  4. Be the example you want to see within your team, and your team will become the example you set.

Every fear we overcome opens up space for something even more amazing to come in. Whether you aspire to be more creative, productive, or innovative, vulnerability is the answer. Let your vulnerability be your superpower. I did—and I don’t regret it one bit.

Additional resources

Resources on shame

Brene Brown Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability”

Monica Lewinsky Ted Talk “The Price of Shame”

Resources on resilience

Sheryl Sandberg Option B Talk

Resources on vulnerability in leadership

Brene Brown: 4 Powerful Things Leaders Should Know About Vulnerability

Resources on fear


Dr. Joe Dispenza Becoming Supernatural

About the writer
Nichole Kelly
Nichole Kelly
Nichole Kelly has been helping marketers unlock their full potential for over 17 years. From running corporate marketing teams to leading a successful marketing agency, she has experienced all “sides” of the marketing equation. As a lead strategist at WebMechanix, she helps brands discover their “why” and develop digital strategies that deliver impact beyond just profit, a gift she discovered after authoring the book How to Measure Social Media. She is a personal development aficionado and offers a level of self-awareness and feminine leadership that is refreshing and inspiring for every marketer.

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