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Clinical Leaders: Vulnerable is the New Strong

Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s our greatest measure of courage.

— Brené Brown

— Brené Brown

In these days of unprecedented change in healthcare, it can be especially challenging to lead practice change in clinical settings – which entails:

  • engaging very busy and often overwhelmed clinicians,
  • addressing all the unforeseen complications that will come up along the way, and
  • dealing with some of the strong egos who want to do things their way.

Vulnerable and Interdependent vs. Strong and In Control

Many leaders have been conditioned to appear strong and in control and grow some pretty thick skin in order to manage change in their workplaces.

But what if the I’ve-got-it-all-under-control practice is actually making it harder on you? What if instead, your team saw that you didn’t have all the answers and needed their help and input? Would that influence the way your team works together? The research says it does. According to social science researcher Brené Brown, vulnerability lies at the root of human connection, and if leaders want to engage their team members, they need to make a human connection with them.

It’s All in How You Say It

A study with 16 hospitals (1) to learn what the factors were for successful implementation of a new technology in cardiology services found they didn’t have to do with things we typically think of like management support, resources, leader status or expertise. Instead, the most influential success factor was how the leaders framed the project and their role in it when communicating the change to their teams. The style of communication directly influenced how team members thought about the change.

The successful leaders let their teams know they didn’t have all the answers and were dependent on their team members for help. They ditched the idea of portraying themselves as the strong leader expert to gain the support of their teams – and it worked. Compared to groups with the so called ‘strong leaders’ who had all the answers, these more vulnerable leaders were able to achieve significantly more successful

implementations. Here are some examples of what to say to enroll your team members in your practice change: Say this…

This project is going to be challenging, and I don’t have all of the answers.

I need all of your help and expertise to make sure we get this right.

Please tell me if I’m doing something wrong and how I could do better.

Human Connections = Strong Teams

Framing your statements by expressing some vulnerability might seem counterintuitive or possibly even career-ending, considering how hospital leaders have typically positioned themselves. However, given the relational nature of patient care and the workforce it attracts, the feeling of real human connection with leadership is often the thing missing for workers in the hospital environment. By sharing your concerns and struggles, you will come across as more human which allows your team members to feel closer to you, and they will be more willing to help out. They will also be more willing to share their weaknesses with you, allowing you to likewise help them.


Edmonson, A. (2014). Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer.

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