I have experienced both personal losses and professional failures in my life. As a leader, some of these losses and failures have been publicly visible.
Last year, I grieved through a failed adoption. Two weeks after we had taken a newborn home as her new parents, her birth family asked to have her returned. They wanted to raise her. Not only were we left empty-handed but it also crushed our hearts!
And that wasn’t the end of it. I was to facilitate our monthly leadership luncheon. My dean had announced I wasn’t available for the event as I was away taking care of the newborn. The girl’s picture was even shown to all present!
Over the next several months, I fielded many questions about our newborn. Each time, I had to explain that the adoption had failed all over again. To say this was a painful experience is to grossly understate the case.
Later, I delivered a message at a chapel service.. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on the pain of loss and the purpose of hope. As I think back to this public loss, I questioned if I had missed an opportunity to lead with my wounds.
As a leader with different sets of stakeholders, I wondered:
- Was my failure to speak in public about the loss to the luncheon audience a missed opportunity?
- Was it being prudent about what to share, with whom, why, or when?
- Did I fear that being vulnerable with such an important group would make me appear weak?
What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.” ~Haruki Murakami
Vulnerability isn’t weakness
You see, I have been thinking a lot about leadership and vulnerability lately. It is in part due to my recent experiences with failure and loss. But also from reading Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly.
In a sense, Dr. Brown’s question captures some of my earlier thinking. “How can you be vulnerable without sacrificing your legitimacy?” she asks. I always thought that if I were vulnerable as a leader, I would be sacrificing my competency.
This fear is not without merit. Women who appear to be emotional are likely perceived as unsuitable for leadership. We also all know men are taught from their boyhood that boys don’t cry.
The expectation is that leaders walk around at their best, brightest, and strongest. They should exude peak performance at every turn. Yet, to display a know-it-all and invincible aura is counterproductive to leadership.
“Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences,” says Dr. Brown. Leaders who embrace vulnerability communicate to their followers that they are not invincible. They share in the common human experience of pain, struggle, failure and loss. They don’t necessarily know everything.
Vulnerability is not over-sharing, purging or disclosing anything to all and sundry as we see on reality television. “Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an part of the trust-building process,” says Dr. Brown.
For leadership to thrive, trust is critical to the relationship between leaders and followers.
To be vulnerable takes courage
I exhort us; let us learn how to engage vulnerability as leaders. Followers perceive vulnerability as courageous and it inspires them to follow suit.
“Being vulnerable at work means you are ready to let your guard down, put aside any pretenses, and be your real self. A vulnerable leader is one who checks his or her ego at the door, is comfortable with not having all the answers, and is ready to wholeheartedly embrace the perspectives, opinions, and thoughts of his or her people…stops feeling compelled to be the first one with an idea or the first one to answer a question…[and] start to see the aspirations of the business through the eyes of the people you lead” ~Jim Hauden and Katherine Lind of Roots, Inc.
Vulnerability yields authenticity; authenticity helps leaders engage their constituents with genuineness, integrity, and honesty. Vulnerability is about having the courage to be you. It replaces aloofness and invincibility with openness, risk and emotional exposure.
Let us learn to engage vulnerability for our own sakes, and for the sake of those we lead.
To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” ~Criss Jami
Q: How are you leading from your authentic, vulnerable self? Have your say by clicking here.