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Being Vulnerable

| August 21, 2018

by Jim Bruce

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”                   – Brenè Brown


The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines vulnerable as capable of being physically or emotionally wounded, open to attack and damage.
Robert Stolorow,1 psychologist, author, and a founding faculty member at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Study, has written “It is pervasive in our cultural meaning-making to equate vulnerability – whether physical, emotional, or existential – with something shameful, an abhorrent weakness to be kept hidden and evaded, or counteracted through some form of reactive aggression and destructiveness. Vulnerability in other words, is regarded as an aberration, a contemptible anomaly to be expunged from our experimental world.” He continues, “Existential philosophy … teaches us that the various forms of vulnerability are constitutive of our very existence as finite beings because we are limited, finite, mortal beings, vulnerability to trauma is necessary and [a] universal feature of our human condition. … To be human is to be excruciatingly vulnerable.”
Brenè Brown, research professor and holder of the Huffington Endowed Chair in the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston, who studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, agrees with Stolorow’s belief equating being human with being vulnerable. She writes: “I believe that vulnerability – the willingness to be ‘all in’ even when you know it can mean failing and hurting – is brave.”2 In the introduction to her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,3 Brown continues this thought writing “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bullet proof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make. Perfect and bullet proof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”
However, becoming vulnerable is hard. Quoting Brown, Dan Schawbel4 wrote:  “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think. When we are fueled by the fear of what other people think or that gremlin that’s constantly whispering, ‘You’re not good enough’ in our ear, it’s tough to show up. We end up hustling for our worthiness rather than standing in it. When we’ve attached our self-worth to what we produce or earn, being real gets dicey.”
So, what is it that keeps you, and me, from stepping up and allowing ourselves to be more vulnerable. Brown says that becoming more vulnerable begins by simply showing up and being seen. She often quotes a Theodore Roosevelt speech given on April 23, 1910 in this regard: “It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” This, Brenè Brown asserts, is real vulnerability. It’s about showing up, engaging, about being all in.
The first part of showing up is to figure out what is keeping us out of the arena. What is it that you are afraid of? Leaders do not have to be perfect to be successful. Admitting that they don’t know everything but are willing to learn; that they make mistakes, admit and learn from them; that they are not the perfect leader but are growing will inspire those who work with them with authenticity and humanity and this is likely to yield better results.
To help each of us get started on our journey to vulnerability, Brown, in Daring Greatly,3 addresses four myths of vulnerability:

  1.  Vulnerability is weakness. In her research, Brown asked thousands of people about times when they felt vulnerable. They provided answers such as owning something I did wrong, when I had to ask for help, when I was starting a new business, etc. As she reviewed the responses, Brown realized than none of these had to do with weakness. All of the responses were courageous and some involved considerable risk.
  2. You can opt out of vulnerability. Brown says that vulnerability is the combination of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is a natural condition of leadership; it’s a natural condition of the work we do, it’s a choice not a consequence.
  3. Vulnerability means letting it all hang out. Brown says that live tweeting about personal details to the point of poor taste is not “vulnerability.” Neither is it courage. She continues that purposeful vulnerability without boundaries is attention-seeking behavior that actually appears to others as desperate. What’s the goal you have in sharing information that leaves you vulnerable? Are you out to get attention or solve a problem?
  4. I can go it alone. If we recognize we are vulnerable, then we are not able to go it alone. Ask others to help. Ask them for their ideas. Ask if they will work with us. In this way, we express our vulnerabilities in a courageous and positive way.

Vulnerability is frightening. It’s also universal, we all experience it. That is, if we are really going to show up in life.
Angela Kambouris is a global consultant in the field of vulnerability and trauma, and writes about how the leader’s mindset drives workplace culture, how to cultivate leaders, and the leadership team for success. She notes that while people try to hide their vulnerabilities at all costs, vulnerability is a power tool in an emotionally intelligent leader’s toolkit. If vulnerabilities are left unchecked energy is invested in ways to combat your perceived weaknesses. Hiding them is exhausting. Kambouris suggests five ways5 to open the door to building on your vulnerabilities:

  1. Be open to and seek help. Real connections are formed when you are open about your experiences. (This is not about talking about your personal secrets.)
  2. Take off the armor. Be publicly vulnerable. Kambouris: “A vulnerable leader is comfortable with not having all the answers, engages perspectives and thoughts of their team, and does not have to be the first with an idea or the first one to answer.” 
  3. Creates a vulnerability mind shift. You begin to see the aspirations of your organization through the eyes of the people you lead. As you step back and allow others to take the driver’s seat in conversations, your staff feel more connected, invested and have a deep sense of commitment to the shared vision of the organizations. 
  4. Check your ego at the door. Leaders need to stop driving the conversation, painting the vision or developing the ideas to execute. Even more than that, leaders must stop answering the tough questions along the way. You remain engaged and focused on the conversation. You can fully hear and embrace the ideas. It’s not about you, it’s about everyone that is involved.
  5. When people share, great work is done. Kambouris notes that vulnerability can build deeper relationships, loyalty and enable people to bring their whole selves to work. It is one of the boldest acts any leader can take.

So, this is what being vulnerable is, and is all about. As I’ve written this, essay, I’ve felt challenged that I have some work that I need to do in this area. And, perhaps you have come to this same conclusion. If you have, I do hope that you’ll begin to do that work on self. It’s very important for your development into the leader that you are able to be.
Do the work you need to do to make this a great week for you and your team.
.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. 

  1. Robert D. Stolorow, “Vulnerability,” Psychology Today, May 2015.
  2. Brenè Brown, Brenè Brown Homepage
  3. Brenè Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Penguin Random House, 2012.
  4. Dan Schawbel, “Brene Brown: How Vulnerability Can Make Our Lives Bette,”, April 2013.
  5. Angela Kambouris, “Being Vulnerable Is the Boldest Act of Business Leadership,” Entrepreneur, March 2018.

Additional Reading:

  1. Emma Seppala, “What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable,” Harvard Business Review, December 2014.
  2. Brenè Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TEDTalk, June 2010.
  3. Brenè Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TEDTalk, March 2012.
  4. Robert F. Hurley, “The Decision to Trust,” Harvard Business Review, September 2006.
  5. Augusto Giacoman, “The Strength of Vulnerable Leaders,” strategy+business, November 2017.