a business leader expressing vulnerability

Importance of Vulnerability in Leadership

By Kimberly Kafafian


I cry at work but I tried to hide it for the first 20+ years of my career. Happy, mad, and sad things will make me cry. I cried when I had to lay off a friend. I cried when the project I worked on for 6-months was terminated without my input. I cried when a coworker discovered she was pregnant after years of trying. Not only have I come to accept my vulnerability, I view it as one of my greatest assets now. Vulnerability leads to trust and greater interpersonal connections, but not all leaders feel the same.

I recently read an interview with the former co-CEO of Chipotle, Monty Moran, who helped the company succeed by leading with a people-first business model. He was promoting his book “Love is Free. Guac is Extra.” Although the title is catchy, it’s the book’s tagline that caught my eye: “How vulnerability, empowerment and curiosity built an unstoppable team.” This tagline and the ideas Moran shared in the interview truly resonated with me, particularly in today’s workplace landscape: Vulnerability. Gratitude. Curiosity. And yes, love.

As an HR professional, I’m tasked with helping to foster a culture of engagement to attract and retain the right talent so the organization can thrive and grow. To that end, I design, measure and evaluate proactive workplace policies and practices, as well as provide executive coaching to enhance leader/employee relationships. One of the leadership practices I stress most to my clients is leading with vulnerability because as renowned sociologist Brene Brown aptly notes, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change” – the foundation for an organization’s success.

Leading with vulnerability is actually a very powerful way to connect with team members. Leaders that share their weaknesses with their teams are seen as authentic. The simple act of acknowledging struggles encourages an openness and culture of trust that empowers employees, fosters innovation and enhances productivity. Why? Because when leaders are genuine, team members can identify with, and respect, them.

“The only way to care for someone is to know them and value them and come to understand them. And in order to do all that, you’ve got to access your actual self; you’ve got to stop, be present and actually allow yourself to understand them,” said Moran. “And that means you’ve got to be authentic. You’ve got to be vulnerable. You’ve got to bring yourself to the meeting with them. You can’t just be checking a box.”

But what does vulnerability in leadership really mean?

Being vulnerable to your workforce doesn’t mean that you need to bear your soul and share your deepest secrets. It just means understanding your strengths and weaknesses, letting your guard down, and being honest about them with your team.

Being vulnerable brings many benefits

When you’re authentic, you’ll start to see the benefits being genuine brings, such as:

  • Enhanced connectivity with your team
  • Greater innovation because of a culture where team members are more open to taking risks
  • Decreased tension 
  • Ability to identify issues more quickly
  • Increased collaboration 
  • Reduced turnover

How to lead with vulnerability

On board with the concept but unsure how to put it into practice? Here are a few ways to be a more vulnerable leader:

  • Confront your own self-doubts
  • Actively listen to other people’s ideas
  • Worry less about saying the wrong thing
  • Don’t be afraid of not having all the answers all the time, ask for help when you need it
  • Be authentic – people will know when you aren’t
  • Take responsibility for your mistakes

Simply said, leading with vulnerability builds a culture of trust. This empowers the workforce, which, in turn, benefits the organization overall.

listen with empathy - leadership in the workplace

Practicing Empathy in the Workplace

By Kimberly Kafafian


On March 12, 2020, I had what would become my last in-person client meeting for the next 457 days. My children were home, right outside my office door, for 542 days. Who could have predicted that 18 months ago, life as we knew it would change so radically. They call this the new normal but that doesn’t make it any more palatable. 

In fact, business leaders and their employees are still facing challenges related to where we work and how we work. And both are juggling not only fear of the pandemic itself, but they continually struggle with childcare and working in makeshift home offices. For those for whom working remotely is not an option, the anxiety of catching the virus is palpable. The rollercoaster ride we’ve all been on has surely taken a significant toll on mental health. Because how we are coping naturally bleeds from personal life into work life, managers need to acknowledge the current hardships facing their workforce and build them into a strategy to effectively lead in a crisis and beyond.

Proactive leaders have shown a genuine interest in how the workforce is doing physically and emotionally since the eruption of COVID-19, making changes in the workplace, offering more flexibility, and providing perks for working parents, just to name a few. While empathy may have been seen by most as just an admirable leadership quality pre-COVID, this soft skill is now a strategic imperative that companies cannot ignore.

Pre-pandemic research has shown the direct impact empathy has on productivity, loyalty and engagement. A new survey from Catalyst in the wake of COVID underscores and expands that connection. In short, it found that empathy is a must-have in today’s workplace as it’s an important driver of innovation, engagement and inclusion. 

  • 61% of people with highly empathic senior leaders reported often or always being innovative at work compared to only 13% of people with less empathic senior leaders.
  • 76% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always being engaged, compared to only 32% of people with less empathic senior leaders.
  • 50% of people with highly empathic senior leaders report often or always experiencing inclusion at work, compared to only 17% of people with less empathic senior leadership.

Leaders must be careful not to confuse empathy with sympathy

The term empathy is often incorrectly interchanged with sympathy, but the two terms are very different, and confusing them can negatively impact how one leads. Empathy is the skill of connecting with others to identify and understand their thoughts, emotions and perspectives – and demonstrating that understanding. In other words, being empathetic means you are stepping into the shoes of another person and using the information you have gained from doing so to help guide your future actions. Sympathy, however, relates to feelings of pity and/or sorrow for one’s circumstances. Showing sympathy rather than being empathetic can lead to feelings of disconnect, the exact opposite of what was intended.

Establishing an environment of empathy

While C-suite and other senior leaders can set the tone from the top down by setting culture, policies and strategy, management’s embracing of an empathetic leadership style is key. This level of leadership is in the best place of hierarchy to recognize and acknowledge employee needs. COVID has blurred the lines between life and work, and direct leaders are better positioned to recognize this integration and support their teams moving forward. 

Actionable items to put the concept of empathy into practice in your workplace

As HR professionals, we are often asked by leadership how to boost productivity and retention. Our answer: embrace empathy. Below is a list of action items we recommend to our clients to help enhance their empathy skills:

  • Have open and honest conversations about work life AND personal life.
  • Demonstrate genuine concern by asking employees questions about their lives, what’s important to them and the challenges they are facing – and actively listen to the responses.
  • Start meetings with personal check-ins asking if everything is OK.
  • Inquire how the employee and their family are faring during these challenging times.
  • Acknowledge work contributions and the great job being done.
  • Express signs of gratitude.
  • Offer flexibility in terms of schedule and workplace.

Empathetic leadership enables businesses to authentically respond, something that truly resonates with the workforce. This is no simple task. Cultivating a compassionate workplace requires real effort, but doing so can enhance employees’ ability to innovate, engage and flourish, which in turn benefits the organization overall.

TLDR? In short, empathetic leadership looks something like this:

I DO care about YOU and the things you care about.

I DO care that you deliver quality work and perform at your best.

I DO NOT care when, where or how you get your work done.

Blocking Time on Your Calendar for the “Unschedulables”

By Julia Lee


Unschedulables” is not a word you will find in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but in my opinion it should be.  It literally means events that are not able to be scheduled, and I think this single word encapsulates the nuance of the constant unexpected happenings that come our way.

I first heard of the term while accidentally stumbling upon a live feed on YouTube one Sunday morning.  I laughed at the irony of landing on this stream because “unschedulables” is a concept I thought about often this past year as I reflected on how to balance life’s unscheduled moments with more grace and poise.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that life doesn’t go as scheduled.  The whole world had a different plan back in March of 2020, then life as we knew it changed overnight in ways we never imagined.  And now, as we enter this new stage in the pandemic with the dreaded Delta variants, what we all expected would be a normal school year is no longer so normal and plans for returning to work may have upended.  This means there will be a lot more uncertainties to manage, daily calendars to balance that will change with little to no notice, and new “unschedulables” coming our way we won’t be able to anticipate.

Plan for tomorrow by blocking out tidbits of time to leave room to adjust

I have so many calendars.  I have a calendar for my personal events, a calendar for my kids’ school and sports schedules, multiple calendars for work, and a calendar to keep track of my husband’s activities.  My iPhone’s calendar app is my go-to guide for staying on top of them all!

With so much on my plate every day, I have learned that to optimally function on a daily basis, I need to make sure I have some buffers built into each day’s schedule to allow room for the “unschedulables”.  Don’t set yourself up with such a tight calendar that you can’t handle some curveball at work, the dreaded phone call from school to pick-up your sick child or an impromptu game of 1:1 basketball with your pre-teen son (that rarely these days asks to hang out).  It’s important to allow space in your schedule for pockets of sanity during a particularly busy day or time to be spontaneous and do something fun like taking the kids out for ice cream, or to tackle the “unschedulables” that come your way.

In our fast-paced society, there’s always a temptation to do more; add more to our calendar; say yes to your boss, your family, your friends. Too often, these schedule additions leave us feeling tired, stressed and overwhelmed.  Most of us know when our plate is too full, but shove down feelings of dread and do what is best for everyone else – later regretting these decisions.  So, take some time today to look at your calendar and see how you can cut out what isn’t important and block some time to adjust for those spur of the moment activities and mental breaks.

Make space in your mind to handle life’s “unschedulables”

My husband started a ritual of taking his coffee on our patio each morning.  He works for a very busy advertising company in Manhattan where the tempo of his day is fast and furious. Spending 15 minutes outside enjoying the weather and a cup of Joe calms his mind before it gets cluttered up with work issues and sets him up to take control of his day.  A similar activity can help you set your daily tone.  Don’t look at your phone the first few minutes of the day and instead mediate, pray or reflect on the day to come.

It isn’t just the mornings, however, when we should take the time to clear our minds and center ourselves. During the day, take a brisk walk around the neighborhood, play tug with your furry friend, watch a funny YouTube clip, call up a friend for a quick chat, or cuddle with your snuggly kiddo.  Don’t wait until you are overwhelmed to do such a spontaneous activity. Take some time out to recharge and set yourself up for success. These small actions don’t take a lot of time and they really are the most precious moments in life, allowing us to be the best we can be.

The Korean word “yehyoo” literally means having the luxury of space to be composed.  We can’t control the unscheduled events in our life, but we can control our mindset. As you are faced with your “unschedulables”, I hope you can find space in your mind and block out time on your calendars to remain composed and full of grace and poise.