A Coaching Power Tool created by Kathryn Scanland
(Executive and Leadership Coaching, UNITED STATES)
As a leader, you must be vulnerable enough for others to identify with you and strong enough for others to feel that they can depend on you. Dr. Henry Cloud
Brene’ Brown, researcher, expert, and overall guru on vulnerability, says that “In our culture, vulnerability has become synonymous with weakness. We associate vulnerability with emotions like fear, shame, and scarcity; emotions that we don’t want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, love, parent, and lead.”
In a recent article in Psychology Today (February 27, 2012), A New Slant on Vulnerability: Strength Not Weakness, Dr. Robert Firestone says this about vulnerability:
“…when we talk about being vulnerable, we’re talking about living without defense, or with minimal defense, that is, taking a chance, going after everything we believe in, everything we desire. When we’re vulnerable, it simply means that we’re capable of pursuing our goals, wants, and intentions, and we’re able to deal with the consequence on a feeling level.”
Some of the challenges we can face or ways we might become “stuck” when we’re so focused on strength and avoiding the appearance of being vulnerable could include:
- Not being able to really connect with others because they can’t identify with someone who demonstrates no vulnerability
- Not being trusted because others can’t relate to the appearance of constant strength
- Having the facade of being inauthentic
- Becoming a perfectionist, believing that we must be flawless
- Communicating that being vulnerable is unacceptable or bad behavior so mistakes and risk-taking are not welcome in this workplace
For many of us, it’s important to be perceived as being strong, whether we’re leading a large organization or parenting teenagers. Even when we feel inadequate, uncertain, or phony, we still have an innate desire to come across “strong.” In the workplace especially, we’ve been programmed or convinced to believe that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. But there may be more truth in the exact opposite. Vulnerability could be a sign of strength.
Re-framing our perspective around vulnerability can be difficult because for many it only means exposing our weaknesses. However, the Oxford Dictionary tells us something different. Some of the synonyms for vulnerable are actually positive words like openness, accountable, accessible, sensitive, tender, and human.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, it means there is room for exploration, room for discussion, room for improvement, room for going forward with a new understanding. If we are willing to make room in our lives for something new and different it that may very well make us stronger.
Self Application for Leaders
Following are four myths (or underlying beliefs) of leadership that seem to make it especially difficult for leaders to accept vulnerability as a positive attribute or virtue.
- Leaders must be perfect. Strength is equated with not making mistakes, always making the right decision. Therefore, we take few risks because failing would mean we are less than perfect.
- Leaders must show strength at all times. Leaders are not allowed to be disappointed or discouraged. Showing or demonstrating any kind of negative emotion would be viewed as a weakness. Therefore, a leader’s emotional intelligence could be hampered by not appropriately demonstrating negative emotions.
- Leaders are not allowed to struggle. All things should come easily for leaders if they are strong leaders. Asking for help would be a sign of vulnerability. Therefore, leaders get stuck in projects and relationships. If they are able to move them forward they move forward very slowly because they aren’t willing to ask for help.
- Leaders need to appear super-human. A strong leader needs to excel well beyond others in the organization. They must appear nearly super-human. When leaders discover that they aren’t super-human it can be devastating and they feel as if they have failed both the organization and themselves. Regular humans have a hard time relating to super-humans so leaders may find it difficult for others to follow them because they aren’t seeing an authentic leader but someone trying to imitate a super-human leader.
Patrick Lencioni, author of numerous books on management and leadership, shares the following example from his blog.
Vulnerability Endears Boss to Workers
A chief executive was giving a difficult speech to employees, one in which she was delivering bad news about the company’s performance and unavoidable lay-offs. At the end of her remarks, she asked for questions from employees, who sat silently in the audience. After a few long and awkward moments, the CEO said, “this is very uncomfortable for me. I really do want to hear what you have to say, someone please say something.” Suddenly, hands began to shoot up as employees saw their leader as an anxious human being with good intentions, rather than merely an authority figure trying to avoid accountability. By being open, she was able to extract and address important questions that needed to be answered.
Another example comes from the author’s own personal experience.
A College Administrator Refuses to be Vulnerable – Loses Job
A college administrator made some poor choices and got too personally involved with a student. Of course this caused all kinds of angst and investigation into the allegations. After weeks of dialogue and thoughtful consideration the college administrator was released from his position. However, it wasn’t because of the relationship with a student that was becoming inappropriate; that situation had not gone so far that it wasn’t beyond repair.
He lost his job based upon other factors that were discovered during the exploration of the allegations. The college president learned that this administrator (also a former professor) maintained the belief that he must always have an answer for students. He could never have the response, “I don’t know.” He believed that would have shown a weaknesses and that was unacceptable for someone in his position.
Hence, his unwillingness to be vulnerable and his need to always give the appearance of strength got him fired. The president could not see how this administrator could ever be effective, or trusted by students or his colleagues, if he wasn’t willing to demonstrate any degree of vulnerability.
Consider that Vulnerability is Strength
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable we are living without defense, we’re able to take risks and deal with the consequences. When we’re vulnerable we are really demonstrating strength that’s supported by compassion, confidence, and character.
Patrick Lencioni describes it this way. “By getting naked before anyone else, by taking the risk of making himself vulnerable with no guarantee that other members of the team will respond in kind, a leader demonstrates an extraordinary level of selflessness and dedication to the team.”
Brene’ Brown, the vulnerability expert says, “Vulnerability is not weakness, and that myth is profoundly dangerous. …Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” “Vulnerability is simply uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Leadership is all about relationships and to be in relationship (with anyone) is to be vulnerable. Every single day, leaders are called to navigate uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure – the only choice is to do it consciously; to lean into vulnerability or to push it away.”
As Mother Teresa said, “Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.”
Before you determine that being vulnerable would be a sign of weakness, consider these questions.
- What underlying beliefs might be driving my need to appear “strong”?
- How would this situation be different if I were living without defense?
- What would it look like if I was willing to take risks and be able to deal with the consequences?
- What would I, honestly, think of someone else who showed the vulnerability I’m avoiding?
- What am I possibly losing or missing by showing no vulnerability?
- What opportunities have I avoided because I wasn't willing to be vulnerable?
Whether in a leadership position or any type of relationship, clients who refuse to show vulnerability may be stuck because the way forward feels fraught with too much risk that requires vulnerability.
How can we help clients begin to see vulnerability as strength and opportunity? We can ask questions to:
- Help them to acknowledge their full humanity. No one is strong all the time. Now one is right all the time. We all have our moments when we don’t have the answer and make wrong choices. Patrick Lencioni says that many leaders live by the mantra, “never let them see you sweat.” He argues that if you’re sweating (which you are), others see it so you might as well acknowledge it. In other words, bring some lightness to their humanity.
- Re-frame their thinking from avoiding vulnerability in order to avoid weakness, to being vulnerable to release opportunities and possibilities.
- Follow with questions focusing on three P’s: possibilities, probabilities, and priorities that can be gained from being vulnerable.
- Shift the significance and weightiness of living without vulnerability to lightness and strength in being vulnerable
- Use an appreciative inquiry approach to demonstrate that vulnerability is an asset, not a liability.
- When was the last time that you showed vulnerability? Did it create a sense of weakness or strength?
- When was the last time you avoided being vulnerable because you feared the consequences? What do you believe could have been positive outcomes had you been vulnerable?
- As a coach, how do you create a space where clients can feel safe with their vulnerability?
- How can a coach use their client’s vulnerability to build their strengths?
- How critical is it for a client to move forward (or become unstuck) to learn to be comfortable with their own vulnerability?