Vulnerability in Leading and Coaching - Steve Barkley

Vulnerability in Leading and Coaching

In a blog post, Leadership Vulnerability: A Personal Journey Through the Eye of the Storm, Samuel T. Baily describes vulnerability as an act of bravery.

“It breaks down barriers, fosters genuine connections, and cultivates an environment where innovation and loyalty can flourish. For emerging leaders aiming to chart a successful course, remember that vulnerability, wielded wisely, is not your Achilles’ heel but your strength.”



Vulnerability is an especially important trait for educators stepping into new middle- level leadership roles (team and department leadership) and varied coaching roles in schools.

Baily provides these guidelines for leadership vulnerability:

  • Embrace Visibility: “Allow your team to see you as human—capable but fallible. This transparency fosters trust and encourages others to be equally open, creating a culture of authenticity.”

I experienced a great example of this leadership visibility at the beginning of a systemwide administrator training that focused on administrators coaching each other on their professional growth goals. The system superintendent shared his growth plan with the administrative staff and had me hold a coaching conference with him where we planned the process and how he would track his process. Before the session ended a principal in attendance had texted my office requesting an opportunity to repeat the process with him at his next faculty meeting.

  • Solicit Support: “The act of seeking help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a declaration of strength, signaling a leader’s awareness of their limitations and their willingness to learn and grow.”

This guideline aligns with my ongoing comments that an indicator of teacher leadership is a willingness to be vulnerable before trust has been built. A department chair, who frequently shares with colleagues elements from an instructional activity that didn’t have the desired impact and requests colleague’s reflections on alternative approaches, promotes an environment for continuous educator (and thus student) growth.

Navigate Vulnerability with Intent  and Share Failures as Learning Opportunities Sharing personal stories or challenges should be purposeful, aimed at building connections or illustrating lessons which generate authenticity rather than seeking sympathy.” I recently had a concrete example of such a story when I was on a panel at a coaching conference and the panelists were asked to share a time that we “failed” as a coach. As I told my story about mentoring a new teacher after an observation where I “gave” her strategies for getting students on task only to discover days later she hadn’t realized they were off task. I learned to uncover what a coachee has observed and experienced very early in a post conference. I believe my story illustrated learning from mistakes.

Lead with Empathy: “Showing empathy is a powerful manifestation of vulnerability; it requires leaders to connect with their own experiences of challenge and uncertainty in order to relate to others. This connection humanizes the leader and boosts morale.” Empathy requires coaches and leaders to listen and communicate acceptance rather than being defensive or jumping to problem-solving.

Teacher: “The district has given us a new curriculum which causes a great increase in planning time on our part and now we have to have to attend these cross- grade level meetings taking more of our time.”


Coach: “I’ll see if I can shorten the meeting.” (solve problem)

Coach: “The curriculum office is requiring every school to hold these meetings. It’s not my decision” (defensive)

Respond with Empathy:

Coach: “A new curriculum does put planning time demands on your already stressed schedule. I am hopeful that our cross- grade level planning leads to greater student success which will reward us all”.

Coach: “It is a harried time for many teachers. What have you seen in the new curriculum that will be most helpful to your students?”

Cultivate a Culture of Open Dialogue: “Leaders should encourage an environment where feedback flows freely in all directions. By being open to receiving feedback, leaders demonstrate vulnerability in action—showing they value growth and learning over maintaining an image of infallibility.”

I frequently describe that instructional coaches should be among the most coached members of a school staff. This is an important modelling opportunity. A coach who models instructional strategies in a teacher’s classroom can provide the teacher a tool to collect observations that provide the coach with coaching following the lesson. The same tool can be used when the coach provides feedback to the teacher as she implements the strategy. Similarly, a teacher serving as a mentor can invite her mentee to observe as the mentor is coached by an instructional coach. This provides the new teacher with a model of how to use a coach’s (mentor’s) feedback.

Consider ending a coaching conference with a request for coaching on your coaching:

Instructional Coach: “Thanks for participating so actively in our session today!  Could you share your thoughts on how the session went? Specifically, I’d love to know what you found most helpful and if there’s anything you think I could do differently to increase the value of coaching for you.”

I’d love to hear how you incorporate vulnerability into your leadership or coaching practices.

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