Go Back
As modern leaders, we have a responsibility not to make people feel invisible or unseen, and it starts by leading with our vulnerabilities so employees also feel safe to do so.

Last year, I delivered a keynote on ‘Modern Leadership’ to a Fortune 500 company about the importance of boosting the self-esteem of peers by magnifying their strengths. The audience comprised 150 or so mostly male C-suite executives.

I started my presentation with the statement: “Good Afternoon, I’m Amanda Johnstone and most importantly, I am neurodiverse and dyslexic.”

You could hear a pin drop in the room.

Was this a leadership keynote or a trauma dumping session? Stand-up comedy perhaps? Chairs squawked as the attendees uncomfortably repositioned themselves and the executives peered across the room at each other or haphazardly looked down, pretending to examine their notebooks and phones.

The room was uncomfortable and that was exactly my intention. I created a sense of discomfort, to enable comfort, a sense of vulnerability and togetherness. But did it work? I’ll tell you at the end of this article.

I was challenged at that time, to stop wearing my own masks, to show up and be authentic.

Let me take you back to my days at primary school. I remember growing up being taught Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats theory. It’s a model for improving decision-making and problem-solving both in groups and individually. Each hat represents a different perspective or approach to thinking about a problem or decision. The idea is to metaphorically put on or take off one of these hats to switch thinking modes.

As a neurodiverse child, I took this hat-wearing a step further. I started mask-wearing (not real masks, I’m speaking metaphorically). I would put on a different character or mask, depending on the environment I was in or facing.

Around my teacher, I was studious. Around my grandmother, I was gentle. Around my friends I was an ongoing source of dopamine and fun, I was so relational. I learned to mirror people very well.

In Year 8, I realized I had this superpower. I could mirror any person and get people to do extraordinary things for me if I simply asked. Was I charming? Was I a psychopath? These are still to be decided. But it was at that moment, I made the decision I was going to use this superpower of persuasion, for good.

Dropping the Mask

Fast-forward to 2015, when my team and I deployed a peer support technology across the globe that uses ‘role modeling vulnerability’ as one of our pillars for evidence-based social change.

My Co-Founder, Roy Sugarman cited: “Observational learning theory suggests that an individual’s environment, cognition and related behavior all integrate and ultimately determine how that individual functions and ultimately determine how that individual will forever function.

“Based on the above, learning to express distress in a non-confronting way that supports rescuing actions by others, can lower the barriers to communicating distress by modeling it for others in a process of chain diffusion.”

I was challenged at that time, to stop wearing my own masks, to show up and be authentic.

By leading with my own vulnerabilities, I’ve made my team feel safe to also do so.

After a few forays into entrepreneurship that did reasonably well, I decided to excel. To this time, lead with authenticity instead of pretending to know it all. It was after a friend Sam Prince sat me down and made me watch The Power of Vulnerability (twice), a TED Talk by Brené Brown, that the message finally started to sink in subconsciously. Prince saw I was lost and I was masking and that I needed to start showing up in the world more authentically.

A few months later, when setting up my new business in 2014, I confided in my CFO (yes, I appointed someone to be my north star from day one) that I had dyslexia and was horrific with numbers. There was Brené Brown, sitting on my shoulder continuing to remind me to be vulnerable.

I told my business partners and investors when I was navigating rough times in my family life and asked them for wisdom and guidance, instead of pushing them away. I no longer pretended. Instead, I reached out to the best people I could find and asked them to teach me, guide me and help.

And my vulnerability led to softness. It led to less shame and more responsibility from each member of our team. I was able to delegate tasks and responsibilities. And my team? They felt seen.

Leading with Vulnerability

As our company grew, so did the culture. We’ve had multiple team members navigate loss, change genders, conquer rehab and drug abuse and defeat cancer and we have all been able to show up and be our best vulnerable selves. Our morale and productivity has never shifted.

I’ve found, by seeking out the talents of individuals and tailoring my leadership to magnify and highlight the best of each persona, that I was able to create a more intimate sense of belonging, vision and community. By leading with my own vulnerabilities, I’ve made my team feel safe to also do so.

We see that as an individual’s sense of belonging and self-esteem are met, they transcend into self-actualization and the best versions of themselves.

Social psychologists Morris Rosenberg and Claire McCullough wrote that “feeling noticed is the most elementary form of mattering” in their paper Mattering: Inferred significance and mental health among adolescents.

Frederik Anseel, Interim Dean and Professor of Management at UNSW Business School, Sydney shared his thoughts on leadership, about “the need to matter” and how it affects workplace culture at an individual level. I’ve summarized below alongside using expressions and my own experience.

Modern Leadership Principles

As modern leaders, here is where we must check our blind spots:


1. Lack of Recognition: Many workers suffer from a chronic lack of recognition, leading to feelings of alienation from their work. This can result in feeling anonymous and invisible, impacting mental health and motivation.

2. Fundamental Human Need: The concept of ‘mattering’ is not about seeking approval or external validation, but rather it addresses a fundamental human need to feel that one is making a difference and that their efforts are seen and appreciated.

3. Longevity and Mental Health: Recognition has a tangible impact on health and longevity. For instance, Nobel Prize winners, who receive significant recognition, tend to live longer than other nominees. Conversely, those who feel their lives don’t matter are at a higher risk of mental problems and depression.

4. Mattering and Cynicism: While making a difference to others is motivating, the energy derived from this can be depleted by factors like bureaucracy or toxic management, leading to cynicism.

5. Importance in Management:  The fundamental principle of management should be to instill in people the feeling that they matter. This goes beyond just a feeling; it’s about genuinely making a difference and being valued.


So, as modern leaders, what are some of the positive outcomes of making your teams feel both seen and valued and how can they be implemented?

Recognizing and valuing individuals is crucial in various contexts, from personal relationships to professional environments. As we reflect on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we see that as an individual’s sense of belonging and self-esteem are met, they transcend into self-actualization and the best versions of themselves.

Here are the outcomes we will witness as we practice modern leadership principles.


1. Boosted Self-Esteem and Confidence: When people feel seen and valued, their self-esteem and confidence increase. This leads to a positive self-image and encourages them to express themselves more freely and contribute more effectively.

2. Improved Mental Health and Wellbeing: Recognition and appreciation significantly impact mental health. It reduces feelings of isolation and neglect, contributing to overall emotional and psychological wellbeing.

3. Increased Engagement and Productivity: When people feel their contributions are acknowledged and valued, they are more likely to be engaged and committed. This heightened engagement often translates into increased productivity and a stronger commitment to goals and objectives.


Zach Mercurio states in his blog The Art and Science of Noticing Others, “Noticing is the act of seeing someone’s uniqueness and showing an interest in their full life. Feeling noticed is the opposite of feeling invisible, the inverse of being forgotten.”

And to answer the question, “But did it work?” by making executives uncomfortable during a keynote, I’d say an unshakable yes. I have received many private messages on LinkedIn thanking me for making them feel seen, related to and helping them to best understand some of their own team or family members who were neurodiverse.

Gone is the old guard, shifting the way for modern leadership to thrive in all workplaces. As a leader, it starts with you.

Amanda Johnstone

Contributor Collective Member

Amanda Johnstone is one of Australia’s most globally acknowledged AI technologists and technology communicators. Her contributions have been celebrated by ‘Time’ magazine as a Next Generation Leader and by ‘The CEO Magazine’ with the 2020 Startup Executive of the Year award, underscoring her significant impact in social impact technology. In 2023, LinkedIn named her a Top Voice in Artificial Intelligence, one of only 1,500 top voices globally of nearly one billion users. For more information, go to https://www.amandajohnstone.com/

Back to top