“Leadership is all about relationships and to be in relationship (with anyone) is to be vulnerable. Every single day, leaders are called to navigate through uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure – and the only choice is to do it consciously or unconsciously; to lean into the vulnerability or to push it away.” Brene Brown, 2016
To be a successful leader today, you are expected to be Creative, Innovative and to possess a comfort in navigating yourself, your team, your organisation through change, seamlessly. You are also expected to be naturally skilled in naming your truth, hold courageous conversations, give appropriate, timely and relevant feedback, receive feedback without reaction, hold people accountable, say “I’m sorry” and mean it, or simply say with ease “I don’t know”!
From running Leadership Development Programmes in Organisations for many years, the most common theme that emerged among managers and leaders was their struggle around the high expectation of Creativity, Innovation, Change in the face of ingrained fears around naming their truth, holding courageous conversations, offering and receiving effective feedback, holding people accountable, apologizing and challenging inappropriate behaviours and poor performance.
So what is it? Why do we struggle with what we are expected to be naturally brilliant at? – now that we are leaders or managers. This question baffled me and that curiosity led me on a quest.
I realized that the one thing that seemed to be in common for all of us was that to do these things involved us stepping out of our comfort zones, into the stretch zone, where there was no guarantee of success or outcome, or worse, a potential for an unfavourable outcome. To walk boldly into the stretch zone, meant being lured into a place of vulnerability, and we all grew up knowing that vulnerability was not a good thing – it was something to be avoided at all costs.
From childhood, we were fed a cocktail of negative messages, which were carefully wrapped up in a colourful wrapping of complexity that was the good ol’ Irish catholic upbringing. Some of the messages we heard were:
“Don’t challenge authority – don’t challenge your father, your mother – don’t challenge or disrespect your teachers, the nuns, the brothers, the priests, they know best – Don’t dare speak up if you know what’s good for you…”
“Ladies should be seen and not heard, they should be gentle, kind, loving, multitaskers, perfect, pretty, great in the kitchen and quiet – and from time to time then, we will tolerate your emotions.”
“Men should be tough, manly, strong, non-emotional, know everything, never ask for directions, fix everything, and keep going no matter what and whatever you do”
As part of my quest, I stumbled upon a wonderful TED talk by Brene Brown, on the Power of Vulnerability… this was a lightbulb moment for me. It struck me that the reason that we’re not embracing Creativity, Innovation and Change and the reason that we’re not Naming our Truth is because we are not embracing our vulnerability. I decided to get trained by Brené Brown to really unpack what’s going on.
On testing the concept of Vulnerability back in my training sessions – I wrote the word VULNERABILITY onto the flipchart and asked people to write 3 words that first come to mind on seeing that word. The responses that came back were very revealing – Fear, weakness, exposure, naked, rejection, ridicule, anger, mask, hiding, run-away, ‘like a girl’, ‘emotional wreck, risk, stupid, bad outcomes…
The word Vulnerability also elicited a visceral reaction in people – coughing, spluttering and almost coming out in a cold sweat and wanting to be anywhere else but talking about vulnerability or anything remotely related to it.
SO, from a young age, we don’t do vulnerability and instead we learn ways to avoid it and numb it. We play every game in the book to avoid feeling any of these feelings and to avoid the discomfort they bring up.
As grown up, we become perfectionists, we work excessive hours until we fall down with exhaustion and start all over again tomorrow, we drink too much, smoke too much, we medicate, we over indulge. We work very hard at ensuring that we have no time or space to feel any of those potentially vulnerable feelings… Hey Hurray! We are successful now. Phew! And we dodged that bullet! Great!
The truth is.. we haven’t dodged the vulnerability bullet at all. What we have dodged is the ability to feel any of these feelings and emotions that could be sending us a very important message and on top of that we are also numbing ourselves from the light emotions and feelings of joy, passion, love, excitement, energy, fun, giddiness, creativity, innovation, ability to change, ability to truly feel our feelings, the courage to be all in in our lives and in our relationships.
Yes, Vulnerability is the seat of these dark emotions, but it is also the birthplace of Creativity, Innovation, Change, Joy, Love and Belonging and all of the light emotions. When we try to numb the dark emotions, we also numb the light emotions – we can’t selectively numb.
Brene brown’s research totally challenged and de-mystified our definition of vulnerability – here’s some of what she has to say about it:
“Across the private and public sector, we are hungry for authentic leadership – we want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire and be inspired. We are hardwired for connection, curiosity and engagement.”
If we don’t learn to embrace our Vulnerability, we will never be what we are capable of becoming – as leaders, managers, as wholehearted human beings.