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Vulnerability is a Leadership Strength

Have you ever gone through a job interview and were asked what are your strengths? Would you ever consider stating that vulnerability is one of them? Probably not. However, for leaders, vulnerability is one of the characteristics that separate good leaders from great leaders. Sarah Bridges discusses why. 

“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” ~ Criss Jami

Talking about vulnerability can be a conversation killer. Maybe it’s my approach, priming friends with enticing openers like, “Tell me about the time you felt most exposed at work.”

The answers were all over the board, and best summed up by one executive who said, “The list is too long to share and besides I’d have to burn it.” The topic triggers memories of low moments, those five-minute episodes that could land you in therapy for months. Painful times often generate shame – the hot-cheeked, prickly feeling of being tiny, incompetent, or untethered and alone.

I know about this firsthand. Let me paint the picture: My final interview for a job as a consultant – Ph.D. in hand and presenting my neuroscience background to an interview panel. The doubts start immediately as the room fills up. My somatic symptoms kick in and my leg twitches in a Parkinsonian way. Oh great, I think. Now I have neurological problems too. My brain lurches obsessively and I fixate on something Bertrand Russell once said: “The sign of the impending nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is very important.”

I race through my talk and start to bolt for the door when a hand shoots up in the front row.

“Who are the psychologists who have most influenced your approach?” a man asks.

My memory freezes and my thoughts move at the speed of the continental drift.

Nothing.

More silence.

“No one comes to mind,” I say.

Pause.

“How about any psychologist you admire?” he adds.

Crickets.

The man looks peeved, like any minute he’ll hurl forth with pay-channel language. Finally, he says, “Can you name any psychologist after the turn of the century?”

We can learn a lot about vulnerability from lobsters and their molting process. You remember reading about them: In order to grow, lobsters need to shed their shell. Not that they have a lot of options. They’ll be smothered if it isn’t scrapped. As enzymes soften their outer layer they back out of their shells and leave behind everything including the membrane that covered their eyes. They’re completely exposed and forced to scamper to safety behind ocean rocks.

Moments of our own exposure feel like this and land at the crossroad of personal development and danger. We stampede for the ocean rocks. We’re faced with a choice: get crushed or grow.

“No thanks, I’d prefer to be crushed,” I hear you muttering. Or maybe that’s me thinking it. Even the origins of the word tell the story: Vulnerability comes from the Latin vulnerare which means “to wound.” Yet the best leaders, not to mention the people we actually like most, find a way to leverage this “woundedness” into authenticity, connections, innovation, and learning. They take those panicky moments and say how they feel, ask for help, or acknowledge them with something that breaks down the walls.

Unchecked, vulnerabilities lead to armament; we equip ourselves with ways to combat our perceived weaknesses. All of us have these defenses that arise in childhood and protect us from painful experiences. They work or they don’t, but they never keep well. Like their Latin name, they only seal the wound and prevent any chance that these injured parts can heal. Instead, they go underground and fester, leading to, let’s call them “issues.”

Defensiveness, blaming, and shame come to mind. Worse, they block us from taking appropriate risks (as our internal voice says, “The shell isn’t that tight.”). No risk, no creativity, and no innovation. Understanding vulnerability is the first step in owning our soft spots and seeing the way they can open us to other people and new ideas.

Vulnerabilities are the historical markers of our childhood.
They are written on the shards of our nucleic acid and buried in the emotional center of our brains. But here’s the problem: protecting our vulnerabilities is driven by a mistaken belief that we aren’t strong enough to face challenges that have overwhelmed us in the past. With rare exception this isn’t true. When we protect ourselves from past pain we act like generals fighting the last war. We come on too strong or shrink when we should stand. One way or another we ended up acting badly.

We all have them.
Period.

Hiding vulnerabilities is exhausting.
It is like having a second fulltime job, only this one’s secret. It’s impossible to maintain our defenses and simultaneously receive honest feedback, explore possibilities, and experiment in new areas.

Vulnerability generates innovation.
The leader that’s willing to say, “I don’t know,” or “I was wrong,” or “I need your help,” creates an environment for growth and learning. These responses convey, “I don’t have all the answers.” Leaders willing to put themselves on the line in this way say, “You don’t need to have all the answers, but let’s take a chance in figuring them out together.”

Vulnerability promotes feedback.
Asking others for honest input fosters a culture of feedback. Leadership vulnerability sets the standard for freeflowing communication between entry level staff and managers or new employees and seasoned veterans.

Openness leads to deeper relationships.
My client Matt provided this insight: “My daughter was really struggling. I was working overtime to keep all of it under control. I was stressed. For a while, maybe three minutes, I kept the façade up. Then in a low moment a peer asked how I was and something, God knows what, inspired me to blurt out, ‘Things are really difficult. My daughter ended up in the psych ward this weekend.’

“It was not the kind of thing they recommended we share in our Leadership Essentials class,” he said, “but doing it had an amazing effect. My colleague dropped by my office later that day and said, ‘I know what that’s like. My son just ended up in rehab. It’s really scary isn’t it?’” In that instant, the relationship between Matt and his co-worker shifted to a deeper level.

As my colleague Suzy put it, “We need to be connected and we need a sense of belonging at work. Taking the risk to be real accelerates both.”

Vulnerability builds trust.
Showing our softer underside enables employees to do the same. It also has the

counterintuitive effect of building loyalty. Bearing arms does the opposite. As Joseph Ellis said, “Because he could not afford to fail, he could not afford to trust.” Vulnerable leaders show strength when they say, “I don’t know.” The act of asking for feedback, admitting ignorance, or taking the chance to speak honestly can feel like cliff diving at night. However, these behaviors connect us with colleagues through a denominator we all share: “Being human.”

Sarah Bridges is an executive coach, consultant and speaker on managing people. She brings a clear-minded, highly engaged, and individualized approach to all her work, whether she’s coaching executives one-on-one, dealing with large-scale organization strategies, or keynoting a conference. She is also a writer who brings her interest in psychology and human development to her investigative articles, personal essays, and advocacy work. Sarah earned a Ph.D. and post-doctoral fellowship in neuropsychology in 1995 and then joined Personnel Decisions International as an organizational psychologist. She founded her own consulting company in 2001.

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