How Vulnerable Leadership Strengthens Organizational Culture

By: Alison Myers

For those of us in the world of non-profits, vulnerability is a familiar concept. It is the genesis of everything we do. Without it, people wouldn’t find the strength to seek out the support of the agencies that offer shelter, clothing, food, guidance or any number of services that can carve a path towards better days. Even the organizations we work for and support run on campaigns of vulnerability, through demonstrating their own need for funding and donations from people in their community.

In the past, this was often where the vulnerability train reached the end of the line, stopping at the doors where decisions are made. After all, for generations, leadership meant standing strong, with courage in your convictions, and rarely if ever faltering. But there is a growing movement amongst researchers in the fields of sociology and governance to suggest the more vulnerability a leader is willing to express, the more successful they and their team have the potential to be.

In his TedTalk, Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe, author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek describes what happens to team dynamics when a leader lets go of control to focus more on the good of the organization rather than their own personal gain.

“When a leader sacrifices their own comfort so the organization can thrive, remarkable things happen,” he explains. Sinek likens the practice of vulnerable leadership to that of parenting, where opportunities for allowing growth lie in the ability to encourage experimentation and embrace failure.

“Think about what being a great parent is,” he says. “We want to give our child opportunities, education, discipline them when necessary, all so they can grow up and achieve more than we could for ourselves. Great leaders want the same thing.”

Sinek says when leaders allow others to shine, others are inspired to do the same, until you have everyone working together to make the organization’s mission a reality. A recent article in Forbes explores this very topic, arguing vulnerability makes leaders more relatable to their employees and allows them to respond with interest to the ideas their teams present.

“Vulnerability allows us to open ourselves to options and solutions that we may not otherwise have seen. A leader admitting they don’t have all the answers will also allow the team to make meaningful contributions and feel more valued.”


The article’s authors suggest these leaders encourage creativity by fostering trust, building shared ownership and encouraging mutual responsibility amongst everyone on their team.

“Leadership isn’t a position—it’s an opportunity we have at every stage,” says Sarah Wuntke, Executive Director of Social Venture Partners (SVP) Calgary, a local agency that connects donors and non-profits in an effort to bring about social change. “Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or member of the community, your action and interactions get to inspire people to be better at what they do.”

For Wuntke, on-the-job vulnerability means leading from and speaking from the heart, something that’s allowed her to champion a fundamental change in her organization. Seeing the struggles facing Calgary’s youth throughout the pandemic, Wuntke helped hone SVP’s focus from its history of broad strokes community support to focusing their current efforts on increasing resilience in youth. This model opens SVP up to other avenues of focus in the coming years, depending on Calgary’s most pressing needs.

Thinking back to her experience as an officer in the military, Wuntke sees a lot of lessons on an increasingly vulnerable and humanized approach to leadership that she’s brought with her to her professional career. In that life, the role of the leader was to mentor others to ultimately become leaders themselves. It wasn’t about one sole person leading the charge. It was about that one person teaching others how to feel secure in their ability to make their own sound decisions. All the while, everyone understood it was never about them.

“The reason for doing something is always bigger than oneself or one’s organization,” she says. “It’s about how to bring together people with a common, understood mission and work collaboratively to achieve that.”

In his TedTalk, Sinek points out it is the role of leaders to set the tone of the organization and establish an atmosphere where open dialogue is welcome and creativity is encouraged.

“When we feel safe inside the organization,” he says, “we will naturally combine our talents and our strengths and work tirelessly to face the dangers outside and seize the opportunities.”

Tell us about your experiences as a leader yourself or as a member of a team. How has vulnerability shaped the way you work? Sharing your stories—an act of vulnerability in and of itself—helps keep the conversation going.