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How Vulnerable Are You?

By Deb Calvert (1409 words)
Posted in Leadership & Teambuilding on April 8, 2014

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Last year, 18 of the top 25 highest-grossing movies featured characters with super-human powers. Invincible leads like The Man of Steel, Iron Man and Thor appeal to us because we place such a high value on strength. 


But there’s something different about the modern superhero. Even among the invincible, there is a decided vulnerability that we can relate to. In fact, it’s their very vulnerability that make Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), Frozen’s Anna and Elsa, Dr. Ryan Stone from Gravity, Gru from Despicable Me 2, and The Wolverine so appealing to all of us. 


It’s a tricky balance to strike – being invincible without being invulnerable. The movie characters who have lost the very vulnerability that makes them human ultimately become the heartless evil villains who exploit the good guys’ soft spots or vulnerabilities.  


It makes for a good plot. But it’s relevant for business leaders, too. In business circles and leadership development programs, the word “vulnerability” has been used a lot lately. It’s casually used to describe how those who need to connect with others must first show their human-ness. Brene Brown’s 2010 TEDTalk on The Power of Vulnerability amped up the discussion. 


That’s why it’s not unusual these days to hear leaders talking about being vulnerable. We all understand, theoretically, that we are supposed to be vulnerable. But it’s rare to actually see leaders openly sharing in those moments when they feel vulnerable. 


To open up the dialogue, People First Productivity Solutions enlisted 28 guest bloggers. During the month of February, one guest article was posted each day to reveal a different facet of vulnerability. The objective was to show 28 unique perspectives on the importance of being vulnerable as a leader. 


28 different points of view about the importance of vulnerability in leadership.


I like the frank way John Choma, Super Bowl XVI Champion, tackled the subject. He said  “Let's face it, choosing to be vulnerable is in direct conflict with the idea of survival of the fittest. It's certainly counter-intuitive. It can be dangerous.  Vulnerability opens us up to personal, social, vocational and possibly physical risk, harm, injury or even death.  So why do some people choose to be vulnerable?”


That question is the essence of the discussion for any leader. After all, we are inundated with messages like “never let ‘em see you sweat” and “fake it ‘til you make it.” We’re supposed to “act tough” and “hold our heads high” no matter what. Showing a weakness or admitting a gap in our abilities? There’s no playbook for doing that. So we don’t. 


Instead, we adopt an air of invincibility, shrugging off what we don’t know or can’t do as unimportant. We build defensive walls so we cannot be hurt by anything that might challenge our own strength. We ignore (and certainly don’t invite) feedback that could help us improve. 


As Dr. Barry Posner, co-author of The Leadership Challenge, wrote in the series “While most individuals believe that constructive criticism is essential to their development, most feel uncomfortable giving it.  Feedback makes us vulnerable.”


So we’re left with a false sense of security. We don’t open up ourselves, and we don’t give feedback or support to others either in a way that might make them feel vulnerable.


Collectively, we are fooling ourselves. Because, no matter what we say and no matter how we act, we are all vulnerable. Every single one of us has our own personal form of kryptonite. No one is immune to their own weakness. 


So why not embrace our vulnerabilities and use that element of human-ness as a strength? That’s what the movie characters we admire struggle and learn to do. 


Why do some people choose to be vulnerable? Well, as Michael Lemon, Thrive Consultant for National Camp Fire, says the only alternative is to “get comfortably numb to the world around us, (to) reject our humanness.” 


That doesn’t sound like leadership. 


Being a leader requires the ability to connect with others. Which, in turn, requires human-ness. And, let’s face it, to be human is to be vulnerable. 


To be vulnerable means “wearing your heart on the outside,” wrote Claire Laughlin, consultant and communications expert


That level of exposure may sound downright scary, but every single one of the 28 guest bloggers wrote about a myriad of benefits associated with becoming more vulnerable. 


Dave Carter, a volunteer with Make-a-Wish, wrote “Emotional vulnerability connects you to yourself. It’s only when you put yourself in the position of being vulnerable, to make mistakes, to fail, to have ‘flaws’ that you can grow.  When you open yourself up to being vulnerable or being hurt, you open yourself up to emotional growth.”


And Australia’s leading sales expert Bernadette McClelland enthused “I love the kind of vulnerability that lets you step off the edge, step into uncertainty and step up as someone new – a better, reinvented version of you. To me, vulnerability is all about re-invention.”


There are two additional benefits to being vulnerable worth mentioning here. 


First, it’s a relief to be vulnerable.

It’s liberating to stop pretending that you are invulnerable. It’s easier to make your way through the day when you don’t have to cover up what you don’t know or can’t do. It’s actually empowering to be authentic about your true strengths AND your current vulnerabilities. 


Finally, when you show vulnerability others will, too.

You will role model human-ness. You will give tacit permission for others to acknowledge their own weaknesses and, then, to seek support for growth in those areas. You will make it okay to take risks, to fail, to learn and to continually grow. 


This is what leaders do. They create environments where people can grow. Leaders are not superheroes. And even if they were, they’d come complete with the vulnerabilities that draw us in to their stories. 


If you’d like to read the complete series with 28 different points of view about the importance of vulnerability in leadership, you can find it here.


Here's Your Challenge:

Once you’ve read about vulnerability and considered your own, try this. Admit to yourself and then acknowledge to others that there is something you are not able to do. Choose something that you have previously masked your discomfort or lack of expertise in doing. There’s no need to apologize for it, just to bring it out into the open. But don’t stop there. Take the next step and ask for help – help to learn more about it, to develop the skills for it or to get resources and support to do it. 


Track the reactions and results you get now that you’ve put this vulnerability out there. Notice how others respond as if you are now stronger, more credible, more authentic and more approachable than before. Now you’ve got an answer to that question. Now you know why some people choose to be vulnerable. 



{#/pub/images/DebCalvertNew.jpg}Written by Deb Calvert, President, People First Productivity Solutions-Author of the DISCOVER Questions book series, Deb has worked as a sales productivity specialist and sales researcher since 2000. She is certified as a Master Sales Coach, Master Trainer, and host of CONNECT! an online radio show for selling professionals where listeners ignite their selling power in just an hour. Deb helps companies to boost productivity through people development. This work includes leadership program design and facilitation, strategic planning with executive teams, team effectiveness work, and performance management program design. 


Do you have a question for Deb?  Please visit our Senior Manager Community, she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert 


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Here are some related articles you may be interested in:  

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