Leadership Tensions: Transparency vs. Vulnerability

Old school leadership taught us to be stoic.  Hierarchy was important and being vulnerable with those subordinate to you was discouraged as poor leadership.

Modern leadership thought speaks more of love and the power of relationships, as evidenced by the best-selling book Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders.

In old school leadership, the words transparency and vulnerability would be taboo.  “Never let them see you sweat” is the understood mantra.

Modern leadership suggests that transparency and vulnerability are good.  That openness and sensitivity go a long way in developing trust and winning influence with those you lead.

So what does that look like?  And what are the boundaries – if there are any – to how far you go?  That’s the leadership tension we’re facing today.

For a bit of clarification, I consulted Merriam-Webster for the definition of both words:

Transparent – readily understood; free from pretense or deceit

Vulnerable – capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; open to attack or damage

After reading those two definitions, I would be quick to say that I would prefer to be transparent rather than vulnerable.  However, Brene Brown (one of my favorite authors) interpreted the definition of vulnerable this way in a recent Fast Company interview, “Vulnerability is simply defined as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”  She goes on to say, “And if you are alive and in relationship, you do vulnerability. If you are alive and in relationship and in business, you do it hourly.”

She claims that businesses can not serve their mission and reach their goals without relationship and that “vulnerability is the glue that binds relationships together.”

In an age where relationships are our currency for getting things accomplished, Brown’s interpretation makes a solid case for the value of vulnerability.

So what about transparency?

Readily understood; free from pretense and deceit.

Whereas vulnerability is a willingness to take risks, to make our ideas known and to engage with others in the process.  Transparency is opening our heart, admitting our fears and acknowledging our past failures.

In my interpretation, vulnerability is something that you commit to when you commit to a relationship with another – whether co-worker, boss, employee, friend, or spouse.  A level of vulnerability must be immediately embraced in order to develop the relationship that will allow you to move forward as a team.  Transparency on the other hand is a slower, discerning choice.  While I’ll be vulnerable to share my ideas and thoughts as it relates to our present relationship, I will be slower to be transparent with the deeper places of my heart.  Those layers are shared over time and as trust is built.

The leadership tension of Transparency vs. Vulnerability is not as much an either-or scenario, but more of timing and discernment.

While a level of vulnerability is important for all healthy working relationships, transparency is more selectively shared in trusting relationships.

Every engagement you have as a leader will have a different ratio of transparency to vulnerability.

A danger sign exists when you’re unwilling to engage either of them.

Where have you experienced good transparency or vulnerability?

Where have you seen transparency or vulnerability go awry?


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  • Mary Beth Stockdale October 15, 2012  

    Great post and very timely for me. Interesting choice of two things to contrast and compare. I am learning more about my relationships in terms of how transparent we are, or aren’t. Thanks!

  • Margaret October 15, 2012  

    GREAT question–every leader has probably struggled with this at some point. I think you hit the key: “The leadership tension of Transparency vs. Vulnerability is not as much
    an either-or scenario, but more of timing and discernment.” We do need to engage them, but we don’t need to block one out for the sake of the other. Great post!

  • Corina Burgess October 16, 2012  

    I oversee our two campus staffs, the leaders are young many of them single. When my husband, best friend and ministry partner passed away 2 years ago, I struggled with the pain of my loss & the passion to stay on track with our calling & assignment. I knew the instinct to run & hide or “be brave” wouldnt give me lifelong success. I made a decision to be both transparent & vulnerable with the staff and I found these things:
    1. It helped them walk through the grieving process
    2. It caused true bond within the staff
    3. It allowed me to lead more effectively (without pretense)
    4. It gave me strength

    Loved this blog. Thank You
    Corina B.

    • Jenni Catron October 17, 2012  

      Corina, I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for being transparent and vulnerable in sharing a bit of your story.