A culture of trust based on vulnerability – Part I

By Zsolt Szalai


1. Leadership and vulnerability?

When I talk to a leader about the relationship between vulnerability and the leader, the first reaction is almost always that the two don’t really fit together. The leader must be strong, sure, otherwise no one will follow him, in fact, they will abuse his weakness. It is worth stopping here: why is it that the vast majority of people associate vulnerability with weakness? In 2010, Brené Brown, a mental health specialist and university researcher, came up with a TED talk[1] called “The Power of Vulnerability.” She shared the results of nearly 10 years of research and, as the title suggests, concludes that vulnerability is strength, not weakness.

One interesting conclusion of the research is that it basically identifies two types of people. Those who consider themselves valuable, they believe that they are worthy of love and belonging to others. And those who consider themselves worthless, they do not believe that they are worthy of belonging to others. The characteristic of those in the first group is that they dare to be imperfect. They are kind to themselves and they can be kind to others. They are ready to love first, to invest in a relationship in which success is not guaranteed. Also, they believe that their vulnerability makes them more beautiful. Vulnerability, according to Brown, is a necessity, a release of complete control over things. It can be accompanied by shame, fear and struggle with worthiness, but it is also the source of joy, creativity, togetherness and love.

Patrick Lencioni’s Book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team explores the five obstacles that make working together at work most difficult. The starting point of this is a lack of trust. This can be traced back to the fact that team members do not dare to become vulnerable to each other. Which is preventing them from honest and constructive exchanges, from discussion focused on the cause and not on the person, and from a commitment to common goals. Lencioni also emphasizes that the formation of a culture of trust based on vulnerability, is the result of a process. It cannot be magically achieved. The leader plays a decisive role in this initiative and example.

My personal experience to create leadership integrity is to embrace and practise the vulnerability described in Brown’s research. Only this can result in a level of trust that is essential for the long-term functioning of an organization.

Jesus set an excellent example for us in this, too. He did not abuse his divine power, but he washed the feet of his disciples (even the one he knew who would betray him) and made himself physically and mortally vulnerable on the cross, without giving in or losing his identity. It was a decision of the will, out of a strong identity. In chapter 34 of the book of the prophet Ezekiel, God speaks of unfaithful shepherds (bad leaders), and then writes about the Good Shepherd in verses 11-16. I believe that this can be a creed of a Christian leader, let verses 15-16 be mentioned here.

“I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.”

[1] The TED talk can be accessed at the following link, the article does not intend to publish it in full detail.

Reflection/Discussion Questions

  1. Do you love and trust yourself?
  2. How can brokenness and vulnerability make you stronger and more beautiful?
  3. What is your goal as a leader, to fulfil the task or to enable others to fulfil the tasks they have?
  4. How does trust help in this?

Zsolt Szalai, following his studies on Hungarian and English universities and completion of a doctorate in finance, has spent the last three decades in mid- and upper-management roles in banking, private equity, non-profit organisations and Christian churches. Currently he is self-employed as a business consultant. Besides that, he is Head of the Board of Elders of Szentendre Reformed Church, Chairman of Christian Businessmen Association, and Chairman of Compass Europe. During his career, Zsolt gained a wide range of experience in corporate finance, capital markets, project finance, innovation management, and business development areas. Zsolt is also adjunct professor at different universities. He is an active speaker and lecturer at conferences, leadership courses, and workshops.