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Vulnerability… And Leadership?

As we read the news and think about the many tough challenges confronting us in the 21st century, vulnerability could well seem to be at the bottom of the list of desired leadership traits. What exactly do we mean by vulnerability? It is commonly defined as “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being physically or emotionally attacked or harmed.”

When I first began teaching at Saint Mary’s 11 years ago, I was nervous about telling the first cohort of learners that I was gay. I was a new teacher in a new-to-me faith-based institution. Though I had been an out-of-the-closet gay man for quite some time, I undoubtedly still held some internalized homophobia and shame about who I am. I had no idea how they might react.

In our MA in Leadership Program, we see leadership as an action that evokes commitment and common purpose. In the values course I was teaching, we explore how each person is an instrument of leadership. We ask people to deeply explore who they are, what experiences have shaped their views of the world, and which values they wish to prioritize in their lives and leadership. I slowly began to understand how my revelation of sexual orientation, and the suffering it caused me growing up, created a different kind of connection across a myriad of religious, racial, ethnic, class, age, and gender differences of our learners. Their stories were different from mine, and just as tender. I also came to understand later that Saint Mary’s Lasallian Principles would have encouraged me to take the risk, emphasizing inclusion, belonging and seeing the sacred in each person.

From Shame to Empathy

It would be difficult to write about vulnerability without starting with Brené Brown’s groundbreaking work on the subject. From the University of Houston, Brown interviewed thousands of people to explore what fosters connection in human beings. (If you haven’t yet listened to one of her videos, her Ted Talk on The Power of Vulnerability has been viewed more than 31 million times as of this month.) As she explored connection amongst her participants’ stories, the pattern that emerged for those who felt most connected with others was a kind of “whole-heartedness”—the courage to be vulnerable, human, and authentic. Brown found that, quite simply, humans need empathy, and what triggers us to have empathy for another person is vulnerability—a willingness to allow others to see our fuller and imperfect human selves. I had unwittingly stumbled into providing an example of risking into vulnerability. As Emma Seppala writes, “Vulnerability… does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself.” As Brown explains,

If you think about connection on a continuum…anchoring [one] end of that continuum is empathy. It is what moves us toward deep, meaningful relationship. On the other side of the continuum is shame. It absolutely unravels our relationships and our connections with other people… Empathy is about being vulnerable with people in their vulnerability.

As Google found in its research on what makes a successful team, “above average social sensitivity” is crucial, and as Brown’s research suggests, vulnerability and empathy are the levers that create such sensitivity. When we understand vulnerability and empathy as drivers for human connection, we can see how crucial these skills would be to leadership.

Seven Reflections on Vulnerability

  1. Vulnerability as Art, not Science: Being effectively vulnerable is more of an art than a science. One needs the emotional sensitivity to know when to bring forward a timely example from your own life. Of course, there are times when someone in leadership needs to be strong and confident. In our current hierarchical mindset, a person in positional authority often doesn’t have the luxury of saying, “I don’t know how to solve this problem” and yet there may still be a way to generate empathy and bring understanding to a team. As David Bradford of Stanford explains, in times of stress, “be vulnerable around being a human being, not about your core competency.”
  2. Shades of Gray: There is an infinite array of ways for humans to be vulnerable with one another. As Ed Batista reminds us, “We assume that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition, or we associate it with extreme forms of emotional expression, such as uncontrollable tears. In actuality, vulnerability is highly relative and can be expressed through a vast range of well-regulated behaviors.”
  3. Creativity and Innovation: Increasingly, we are dealing with adaptive challenges in our communities and organizations. These challenges require us to move beyond the current hierarchical mindset of the dominant culture. In such instances, we need everyone’s best thinking at the table, not just those at the top of the org chart. What are the relationships and connections we need to have with one another to be more creative and innovative on our teams? Learners in our program frequently are surprised by how they get to know their colleagues within their cohort learning community better than work colleagues they may have known for decades.
  4. Effectiveness: People are more effective and happy when they can be more fully themselves, whether they have positional authority at work or not. If this statement is true for you, it is probably true for others, and it is especially important to consider how fully those at the margins of the dominant culture are able to be themselves. How might we make space for more belonging and engagement for everyone at work?
  5. Engagement and Connection: Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report tells us that 2 out of 3 Americans are disengaged with their work, and as a result are less likely to be emotionally connected or productive at work. Human disconnection leaves way too many resources, and lives, underutilized and underappreciated.
  6. Difficult Conversations: In our communities today, many of us are facing challenging conversations across major differences at work and home. How might a dose of vulnerability help us connect with one another and find new meaning and resolution in our disagreements? How might vulnerability be of service in your next “difficult” conversation?
  7. New Frame: Being Vulnerable to … Learning. Maybe there is a new way to look at the word vulnerability. In relationship to leadership, maybe vulnerability means being open to the possibility that what is being “attacked and harmed” is our old ways of being disconnected from one another? In our practice of leadership, how might we listen for the need for vulnerability, and lean into providing a way for people to feel more connected to one another?

How might we experiment with these ideas? Where might greater connection be of service in your life, and how might you explore risking into vulnerability?

Rainbow photo taken by the author.

About Doug Paxton, Ph.D.

Doug Paxton, Ph.D.
Doug Paxton is a learner, educator, writer, and artist who is passionate about what humanity has to learn from reconnecting to our values and the natural world. Doug is Co-Director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary’s College and faculty in the MA in Leadership program, currently focusing his teaching in the area of Values in Action, Leadership and Sustainable Organizational Change.

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