Vulnerability in Leadership

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By: Shari Dalton

December 7, 2018

By: Charity Crawford

Recently, I finished reading a fantastic book by one of my most favorite people out there right now. The book is called Daring to Lead by Brene Brown. Many of you may already be familiar with Brene; she has done a lot of research into empathy, shame, imperfections – basically, all those things that can often make humans very uncomfortable, but are oh-so-necessary for us to live our best lives. She is a wonderful storyteller, and this book is yet another example of her skill in this area. I highly recommend it if you are looking for something to add to your reading list!

I initially picked up this book because I wanted some inspiration for Moxie’s upcoming leadership training program. Well, I certainly got the leadership inspiration I was looking for, but what I wasn’t expecting was just how personal this book ended up being to me. It’s reminded me that I have a lot of personal work that I need to and want to do in the areas of empathy, shame, and vulnerability. Even though these are very personal concepts, they translate quite well into business and leadership. This blog will summarize a couple of her key points.

First, let’s cover what it means to be vulnerable. I have a difficult time describing what it means to be vulnerable without describing what it feels like to be vulnerable. Vulnerable is how it feels when you ask an attractive guy/gal for his or her phone number. It’s how it feels when your boss berates you in front of your teammates. It’s how it feels when you miss the points that could have won the game. It’s how it feels when someone you care about leaves you. There are a seemingly infinite number of examples I could use here, but I think I have given you an idea.

“Yeah, I’ve got the idea, but what does this have to do with being a good boss or leader? Seems kinda ‘soft’ to me. Aren’t good leaders always the strong types?”

The irony is, you cannot be strong and courageous without being vulnerable. People who say that vulnerability is for the weak are usually people who have their defense shields up in full force. Quite the opposite is true. Think about any time in your life that required you to perform some act of courage, whether it was as big as getting called into duty as a member of the military, or sticking up for someone else, or even just getting into a taxi in a country where English isn’t the first language spoken. All of those acts required some degree of courage, and each of them also required vulnerability. You simply cannot have courage without vulnerability.

Tony Robbins states this regarding courage and vulnerability: “Certainty is a fundamental human need. It takes courage to detach and step into your fear because you’re not sure what will happen when you tell someone about your fears. Now, courage doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It actually means you are terrified, but you do it anyway. Remember, it’s not courage if it’s not hard.”

What are some situations where you may be required to be vulnerable and courageous as a leader? As a brand-new manager promoted from a sales role, you may be concerned that your peers-turned-direct reports won’t respect you or “like” you like they did when you were in sales. Or, you may have to communicate some upcoming changes to your team that quite possibly won’t go over well, and you’ll be bearing the brunt of the feedback. You might have someone on your team who is going through a difficult time personally and whose work output is suffering as a result, and you want to show your support but you’re afraid that the team’s lowered performance will directly reflect on you.

The key is not to avoid those feelings, but to understand them and “rumble” with them, as Brene likes to say. Only then can you develop the vulnerability skill just as you do with any other skill, and work with it to your benefit. By being vulnerable, you earn the trust of your teammates, as well. Team members who observe their leaders being vulnerable, courageous, and empathetic are much more likely to exhibit these behaviors themselves. As Ms. Brown so eloquently states, “The level of collective courage in an organization is the absolute best predictor of that organization’s ability to be successful in terms of its culture, to develop leaders, and to meet its mission.”

Be honest with and about your feelings. Know that your need for control and certainty stems from your fears. And, know that it’s totally normal to have these fears. What will separate you from those “horrible bosses” that everyone has a story about is what you do with those fears. Will you choose to take your fears and insecurities out on other people, or yourself? Or, will you show empathy and compassion toward yourself, and those with whom you work, and say, “You know what, this is a story that I’m creating in my head. I’m going to choose to write my own ending.”

Make the choice to be courageous through vulnerability, and your team will thank you. And, you will be the kind of human that this world so desperately needs right now.

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