Research Paper By Emmanuelle Gounot
(Executive Coach, UNITED STATES)
We hold a high bar for our leaders. We expect them to be competent and to deliver consistently against stretch objectives. In parallel, we also rely on them to serve as role models and to build cultures that empower team members to do their best work, both individually and collectively. Many of these driven leaders also hold a high bar for themselves and thereby add to this weight with their own expectations. As they internalize this pressure to live up to a Socratic ideal of perfection, it can be easy to develop an imposter syndrome. A lot has been written about the importance of authentic leadership but how can one be authentic and show one’s true self when one puts on a protective armor every day? This very armor hinders one’s ability to connect with people, inspire trust, motivate, and lead with inspiration. As coaches, we have an opportunity to support our clients as they allow themselves to be vulnerable. Far from weakness, this acceptance of vulnerability can become a leadership superpower. As an aspiring leadership and entrepreneurship coach, my focus is on business leaders, but the power of vulnerability also finds rich applications across many dimensions of life coaching.
What is vulnerability?
Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term “vulnerable”, derived from the Latin noun vulnus (“wound”), originally meant “capable of being physically wounded”. The word is now often used figuratively to suggest “defenselessness against non-physical attacks including criticism and susceptibility in the context of failure”. It is easy to jump from this defenselessness to the exposure of relative weakness, a nakedness that goes against our ubiquitous celebratory mythology of the strong and resilient. Vulnerability suggests a relinquishment of control not only around outcome but also the image of the self that we show to the world. The vulnerability can expose us to shame and we are far from the super-hero armor that can be so tempting to put on as a leader.
Brené Brown’s theory of vulnerability
Brené Brown turns the concept of vulnerability on its head through an insightful exploration of shame resilience. In Daring Greatly, How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, she asserts that “Vulnerability is not weakness” and that “the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional”. Vulnerability is no longer about winning or losing and the boasting or shame that could come with such powerful outcomes, it is about being and engaging – “It’s being all in”. For Brené Brown, vulnerability stands out as a key attribute that allows us to truly experience our human nature, by connecting with our core emotions and connecting. She goes on to say that “Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable.” In this narrative, vulnerability becomes a powerful and transformational force that gives us the courage to be seen and act because we let go of what people think and we acknowledge our worthiness by feeling we are enough.
Of course, this does not mean that vulnerability is easy. On the opposite, it is hard and takes great courage. It requires us to face our fears and to become comfortable with what we find most uncomfortable. “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weaknesses”. As coaches, we have an opportunity to support our clients on a brave journey where they can dare to become vulnerable, with the end goal of feeling, connecting, and leading in a more impactful and authentic way. Brené Brown invites us to measure the road ahead: “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection”. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines courage as the “mental or moral strength to resist opposition, danger, or hardship. Courage implies firmness of mind and will in the face of danger or extreme difficulty”. The word’s etymology also adds a different layer of meaning. Stemming from the Latin “cor”, courage is linked to the heart, the organ of life and loco of feelings. In that sense, finding the courage to be vulnerable allows us to truly come alive.
How can coaching support clients on a journey toward vulnerability?
Powerful questions to support self-awareness
Through reflection and powerful questions, coaching can support clients to become more self-aware of the fears against which they try to armor themselves. The coach may invite the client to identify, acknowledge, and label his fears as a first step. Once the object of the negative emotions has been defined, the client is empowered to determine whether anxiety, fear, including fear of shame, is a response that still feels adequate. After supporting the client to acknowledge and label his fears, the coach can lead him through an inquiry exercise. Byron Katie’s Work can be a good place to start, testing these very fears. Let’s imagine a leader who fears that others will think less of him if he admits he does not know whether a strategy will work. The coach can support the client to do “The Work” through a variation of Katie’s four questions and final thought turnaround:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know it's true?
- How do you react—what happens—when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
- Turn the thought around to experience the opposite of what you believe
Byron’s Work can help a client to shift his perspective and progressively become more empowered to tackle and even demystify his fears.
Empowering perspective of self-acceptance and responsibility
The focus on self-awareness helps the client to reframe fear, shame, and anxiety around a situation and/ or his limitations. The client can shift to self-acceptance and take responsibility for his emotional response. This allows him to regain agency and empowerment instead of feeling defenseless, weak, and even victimized. The coach can even invite the client to explore who he would be without his fears and this visualization itself can be the first step toward a powerful choice around the response the client wants to craft. This invites the client to progressively let go of the behavioral shields he may have put up to guard himself against vulnerability. Brené Brown identifies three main behavioral shields against vulnerability: 1) Sacrificing joy by constantly preparing ourselves for the worse, 2) Avoiding shame and blame through perfectionism, 3) Numbing anxiety and shame through busyness, thereby taking the risk of numbing a broad suite of emotions at the same time.
Self-love builds on self-acceptance and self-esteem; it is the ultimate self-validation. With love comes gratitude; the client can choose to focus on the half-full glass and feel uplifted through the practice of gratitude rather than focusing on the scarcity perspective of “never enough”. That self-love is not boasting pride or hybris but rather an acknowledgment of the greatness of life in all its imperfections. The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi offers an interesting approach to see the beauty in the flawed or imperfect, accepting what is for what it is. As the practice of mindfulness, the lens of wabi-sabi helps us to release judgment and there is no longer a distinction between beauty and non-beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; it is a connection and “a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.” This acknowledgment of beauty in the broken and imperfect echoes Brené Brown’s assertion that “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity”. Kintsukuroi, the old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery highlights cracks with a special adhesive suited with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. “This unique method celebrates each artifact’s unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them. In fact, Kintsugi often makes the repaired piece even more beautiful than the original”. Likewise, coaching clients can choose to celebrate their uniqueness and to double-down on their strengths rather than agonize about their areas of opportunity. This does not mean clients become complacent or give up on self-development but rather that they can feel whole and embrace both their strengths and challenges as the signature of their authentic leadership style.
Tactics to practice vulnerability
Distinguishing between self-worth and outcome
A client who develops self-love is empowered to distinguish between his personal worthiness and an outcome. One can be a competent and respectable person who experienced a setback. This can help the client to move forward and learn from a subpar outcome. Separating personal worthiness from a work product also helps clients to let go of perfectionism that may not be serving them. It is easy to stay stuck in inaction because of the fear that the work product may not live up to external and more often personal expectations. Acknowledging the cost(s) of inaction, letting go of the pressure of perfection, and thereby making oneself vulnerable to potential constructive criticism can move one forward when facing that mental block.
Similarly, the coach can support the client in identifying his values and strengths and to use them as positive affirmations at times of uncertainty. During new student orientation, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania has its freshmen class chant “No matter what you say or do to me, I am still a worthwhile person”, a motto I have found useful as an alum when experiencing setbacks. The coach can encourage the client to substantiate this affirmation of worthiness with concrete strengths and examples. For instance, a leader may choose to remember he is a worthwhile person because he cares about his team and invests in their professional development, as exemplified by situations A, B, C on which he received positive feedback from his team and a broader group of colleagues.
Asking for help and empowering others
Believing in one’s worthiness also removes stigma in asking for help; it is no longer a sign of weakness. If I ask you for support because I don’t have the skills or don’t have the time, it shows that I also care about the best outcome for our team, rather than needing to prove value through my contribution and potentially compromising the final results. In that sense, asking for help can become a strength to get to the end goal better and faster. Seeing us ask for help also encourages others to offer help if they have ideas or capabilities to deliver on the goal better than we could. Accepting the idea that I may not do it as well or as fast as someone else, or even that I have no idea on how to get it done also allows me to unleash greatness in others and ultimately get to a stronger organization where task completion and success is not dependent on me. However, one needs to feel comfortable enough in the value that they bring – in their strengths- to feel that the success of others does not undermine their own and rather reflects positively on them.
Taking responsibility – owning setbacks and failures
There are times when one may have made a mistake that is visible for all to see. Brené Brown encourages us to distinguish between shame and guilt, the feeling that “I am bad versus I did something bad […] When we feel shame, we are most likely to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone”. This defensive shield does not help us to connect with others, repair trust that may have been damaged through the mistake, and inspire confidence moving forward. Shifting from blame to responsibility and acknowledging that failure is a source of learning and improvement can be an inspiring leadership lesson. Leaders have an opportunity to set the tone and build a culture of transparency and honesty where people are encouraged to share learnings rather than cover mistakes and waste resources rather than duplicating mistakes across the organization.
Leadership benefits of vulnerability
As life and leadership coaches, we can support leaders in their journey to become more comfortable with the discomfort of vulnerability but what are the leading benefits to their organizations?
Forward movement through increased decisiveness
As leaders develop more comfort with discomfort, they grow their self-confidence and find the courage and the heart to make decisions and move forward. As they become open to risks and setbacks, they gain decisiveness and multiply learning opportunities for themselves and others around them. Knowing they can iterate, and pivot is especially empowering to entrepreneurs and leaders of fast-growing businesses. This increased self-confidence to move forward with incomplete information and ability to make decisions in the face of ambiguity also allows leaders at large to move from fear of getting it wrong to action and thereby respond with agility to changes in the external environment. COVID-19 response became a great use case for decisive leadership when the risk of getting things wrong was perceived as extremely high and there was a lot of visibility around decisions.
Learning and growth through feedback
This increase in self-confidence and courage allows leaders to open up to the possibility of risk and failure. This creates opportunities for learning and modeling this behavior invites feedback to leadership, something that can often be missing in organizations that put a value on hierarchy and the relative infallibility of the leader. Leaders who openly acknowledge they are not perfect and have growth opportunities are more likely to get the feedback they need to improve and unleash greater performance from their organization. This is also the sign of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.
Culture of trust and empowerment of others
Lastly, by being vulnerable and showing who they truly are, leaders connect and inspire on a personal level. They create deep intrinsic motivations for teams rather than relying on the power of authority. They move away from traditional heroic leadership where they are expected to have all the answers to an authentic and collaborative leadership style that creates trust. In their book Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, Frances Frei and Ann Morris call out Authenticity as one of the three pillars of their triangle of trust: Logic, Empathy, Authenticity. By accepting who we are and accepting we are not perfect, we shift the emphasis from ourselves to others and we can empower others and unleash greatness across the organization.
Agility and innovation
Institutionalizing a culture of openness, authenticity, trust, and vulnerability is a prerequisite to experimentation and innovation. Imperfect results become an opportunity to learn, iterate, and refine a product or value proposition. Putting down the shield of perfectionism can hence lead to increased organizational agility and competitive advantage.
It takes courage to come to not only accept but embrace our areas of opportunity and then willingly share them with others. Coaching can support leaders in developing this ability to own their imperfections without shame and to make themselves vulnerable to the perception of others. Letting go of our fears and shame of imperfection can help us to lead a more authentic and fulfilling life. While there is seemingly a contradiction accepting ourselves as we are with our shortcomings and delivering on the high bar of leadership, showing vulnerability can actually be a powerful tool to create trust, inspire and motivate teams to create a stronger output. Vulnerability is not something we should overcome as leaders but something we should actively cultivate and promote within the organizational structure. With greater vulnerability comes greater authenticity, collaboration, and innovation. The great leadership of others starts by leading ourselves and as Bill George, a Harvard Business School professor, explains as part of his work on authentic leadership:
The hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.
This highlights the potential benefits of executive leadership coaching around vulnerability and authenticity for the larger organization.
Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. First Published 2012, Kindle Edition
Byron Katie, Loving what is: Four questions that can change your life. First Published 2002, Kindle Edition
Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You, June 2020, Kindle Edition
Bill George and Peter Sims, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, First published in 2003, Kindle Edition
Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Stone Bridge Press, Copyright 1994, pages: 46-51
Kelly Richman-Abdou, Kintsugi: The Centuries-Old Art of Repairing Broken Pottery with Gold, My Modern Met, https://mymodernmet.com/kintsugi-kintsukuroi/
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Online Edition https://www.merriam-webster.com/