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The Power of Authenticity, Compassion, and Vulnerability in Leadership

Leaders who are authentic, compassionate, and vulnerable have the power to transform organizations. No matter the level in an organization—CEO, team lead, or project manager—being an authentic leader starts with building relationships, then fostering trust and confidence in people to inspire them to work hard. That trust must be earned, and it doesn’t happen overnight. 

A Harvard Business Review survey found that 58% of employees trust a stranger on the street more than they do their own boss. 

So there’s work to be done. 

All the world’s a stage

There is a common misconception that authentic leadership means just showing up as yourself. I disagree. Whether you recognize it or not, every leader is playing a role. Authenticity comes from taking that role seriously. Think of it like being a stage actor: You’re playing the role of CEO, senior executive, or team lead. The question each person needs to ask themself is this: “Who will I be while I do this role?” 

If I show up as my authentic self, then when I’m in a bad mood and have a need to vent my frustration, my fellow actors will find me difficult to work with. By contrast, if I’m focused on the script, the audience, and the conditions in each moment—I make it possible for others to perform their roles. If you prefer sports to theater, a similar metaphor applies to athletes on a team. For the team to perform, you need to play your position well, supporting your teammates in their positions and enabling them to excel. 

If you recognize that you’re playing a role and that your words and actions will be interpreted by the people in the audience, you have to read the room from moment to moment. Let’s say, for example, you’ve eaten some eggs for breakfast that didn’t agree with you, and you’re making a pained expression in front of a room full of people. You know you’ve got indigestion, but all they see is their leader making an unpleasant face. So they start to worry: “Is the company in trouble?” “Is someone going to get fired today?” 

When you notice concerned faces staring back at you, then you have to be intuitive and compassionate enough to take a step back, slow down, and ask yourself what’s going on. Why are they reacting this way? Are you reading the room right? You need to understand the situation that’s unfolding and be aware enough to check-in. As an authentic and compassionate leader, you get the opportunity to reveal, “Look, the eggs I had for breakfast this morning aren’t sitting well. I’m sorry. Let’s start over.” 

During difficult conversations or in moments of uncertainty, it’s critical to take notes:

  • What’s the situation?
  • What is your relationship in that situation? 
  • What might be clouding your judgment right now?
  • What can you do to be helpful in that moment?

The relationship that leaders have with their team, and with each of the individuals on that team, is ultimately what inspires them to remain dedicated to their work for an extended period of time. This is especially true during a complex project or when a company is in growth mode and the outcome is unclear. People need faith, trust, and confidence in their leaders to continue their efforts through doubt and uncertainty. Showing up as a human being that shows compassion for yourself and others creates the trust necessary for everyone to go the distance, together.

Showing up 100% as you are isn’t enough. Instead, it’s required that you dedicate yourself to performing the leadership role you are playing. When you grow as a leader, continue to ask yourself, “how do I function in a way that models compassion?” This awareness is vital, both in celebrating achievements and addressing unpleasant challenges. 

Vulnerability is not a weakness

As a leader, you may fear that by being vulnerable, you appear weak. You may fear that your board, stakeholders, or employees will lose confidence in you. In my nearly 40-year career, across industries, sectors, and countries, I’ve never found vulnerability to be a weakness.

It’s easier for people to believe in you if they trust you, and leading with bravado isn’t a way to build trust. Bravado will work until you fail—and you will fail. That’s when your ego house of cards will topple.

Being vulnerable means you have to be accountable and admit your mistakes. This approach will give people the confidence to call you out when you’ve said or done something that appears contradictory to your prior position, or something that makes them feel uncomfortable. If you demonstrate that you’re willing to listen and learn, then you will hear essential feedback early and can course-correct when it’s less costly to do so.

The bottom line

Early on in my career, I learned that showing up as “the boss” doesn’t inspire people to follow you or work hard. A metaphor I keep coming back to is Shakespeare’s “Henry V”. Most of the projects we encounter, especially in the tech industry, are like the Battle of Agincourt, when Henry had to lead his soldiers into battle from the most vulnerable, dangerous front.

While Henry’s vulnerability was literal (his life was on the line), the key takeaway is this: We must be willing to put our egos aside, roll up our sleeves, and work hard alongside our teams toward a common goal. Ultimately, when we are willing to be authentic, compassionate, vulnerable leaders, the respect and trust that creates will multiply across the organization, resulting in greater transparency, stronger relationships, and highly motivated and empowered teams.

If this way of thinking resonates, I wrote a book on the topic some years ago. It still serves as my touchstone on a daily basis.


  • Michael Schutzler

    Michael Schutzler is an entrepreneur, engineer, science geek, and first generation immigrant. He is the CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA). Before joining the WTIA, Michael led the merger of Livemocha – a community of 17 million language learners – with the popular education software company Rosetta Stone. He also built into the first profitable social media application, transformed online marketing at, and grew the online gaming business at RealNetworks to become a global leader. He teaches part time at the University Of Washington Foster School of Business, serves on several boards, and is an investor in Flowplay, YouSolar, Koru, Moment, 9 Mile Labs, Alliance of Angels, Keiretsu Forum, and Social Venture Partners. As a successful Internet entrepreneur, lead angel investor, and veteran executive coach, Michael has personally invested in twenty-four companies, served as coach and advisor to more than 100 executives, and has raised over $50M in private financing.

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