In my executive coaching practice, I come across strong and smart women leaders whose success has come from always being prepared, being “on”, proving that they are smarter and more competent than those they compete with for the next opportunity. In their effort to be perceived as strong they often have a hard time being vulnerable. This can now be the one thing that holds them back from their true leadership potential. How can vulnerability be your biggest strength?
The viral (over 37 million views and counting) TedTalk by author Brene Brown talks about the importance of vulnerability. It got me thinking about how important vulnerability is as a leadership practice, particularly for transformational leaders. As transformational leaders our greatest source of impact is through connecting with others. Transformational leaders impact through personal influence of who they are rather than their positional power. There can only be limited impact in leadership if we have no way to connect with others beyond our transactional hierarchical positions. According to Brene Brown our ability to be vulnerable requires courage and forms the basis for our connection with others, a connection that is critical if we are to inspire others.
Personal Story of Vulnerability
I was recently in my zumba dance class when about half-way through the class I noticed an embarrassingly large tear in my zumba pants right around the inseam of the thigh. I was aghast. What if someone else noticed? All the spontaneity and the joy of zumba was gone and I spent the vast majority of the rest of the class somewhat self-conscious, trying my best to hide the tear, and not making very many moves (something sort of counter-productive if you’re in a zumba class). Ultimately I had a “what the heck” moment and decided to just come out of the closet, so to speak. Feigning as much nonchalance as I could muster, I declared to the person dancing next to me “Look at the tear in my pants. Any idea where I can get some good zumba pants?” I had expected some kind of a reaction…horror, embarrassed laugh. I didn’t get any. It was a matter-of-fact “I got a great deal at TJMaxx”. Whew! The fear of being vulnerable was big. The act of being vulnerable felt like relief.
Do You Dare to Bare?
You’re probably wondering “What does a wardrobe malfunction during Zumba have to do with leadership?” Turns out it’s an interesting metaphor for how as leaders we are embarrassed to “bare ourselves” to others. As a leader, have you ever felt that there are parts of yourself you’ve had to check at the door when you come to work? We all have aspects of ourselves that we’re afraid to share for fear of not being accepted, so we check them at the door. We mask who we are to fit a mold that we believe is desirable. The hard part of this according to Brene Brown is that when we “numb ourselves”, it also kills off the joy and connection that we are fully capable of. This is the kind of connection that deeply engages others and creates our potential for transformational leadership.
At this point, I have a confession to make. I don’t do vulnerability well. It takes a lot of effort on my part. I have spent my entire life convincing myself and others that I’m strong, smart, and in charge. In my corporate jobs as a Region President or Chief Marketing Officer, I felt I needed to constantly prove my value to the organization by being smarter than the next person. Vulnerability is particularly hard for women who have worked tirelessly to get to where they are, or have hidden parts of themselves to fit what they perceive as the “success mold”. So, in my effort to be strong, I made a decision to not be vulnerable, to not show too much emotion, to always be certain, to be convinced and convincing that I am right.
Vulnerability Requires Great Strength
Here is what I have now discovered. Strength and vulnerability are not opposites. Vulnerability requires great levels of strength and courage. It is actually the next level of evolution in our strength as leaders. It requires courage to be who we are despite our fears of not being accepted or liked. It requires that we ourselves accept the parts of ourselves that we don’t like or are ashamed of. It requires courage to talk about our failures and take accountability for them. It requires courage to admit that we are feeling uncertain or that we don’t know all the answers. All of these require an evolution within our being in order to grow from being transactional to transformational leaders.
CEO of Pepsi on Vulnerability
The story goes that the first thing Indra Nooyi did after being told that she was the chosen one to take on the role of CEO of Pepsi, was to get on a plane and get to her biggest competitor for the job. She wanted to convince him to stay with Pepsi. She told him she needed him and that the company would be better with him on board. That’s showing vulnerability. It takes courage. A smaller person would have been only too glad to let their nemesis leave.
Leadership Practice of Vulnerability
So, how do we evolve in our ability to be vulnerable? Here are some exercises to practice vulnerability:
1) Become Self-Aware – There are a couple of leadership practices that I believe are truly transformational to growing our self-awareness that I recommend to my executive coaching clients. If you are practicing mindfulness, just start to be aware of when you feel vulnerable. If you are journaling, write about it in your journal. Reflect on what made you feel vulnerable. What is are some qualities you believe you need to hide from others in the workplace? Some of these may be attributes you don’t accept about yourself. Remember what we don’t accept about ourselves can derail us as leaders, so bringing some awareness to this is important work.
2) Reveal Something – Practice revealing more about yourself to your work colleagues. Share something about your background, your values, your story, or a failure you experienced and what you learned from it. For example, after 9/11 happened I tried to underplay the fact that I am Muslim (albeit a slightly Buddhist leaning Muslim) in my workplace. There was some collective shame associated with what the terrorists had done and how they justified their acts, literally hijacking the religion. I stayed well away from conversations related to 9/11. I was surprised when my boss asked me if I was okay and wanted to make sure I hadn’t experienced backlash. You’d be surprised how many truths we don’t reveal about ourselves, truths that we expend a lot of energy maintaining as secrets, that people already know about us.
Diana Keough, a friend, story-teller and CEO of ShareWIK Media shares her own riveting story in her TEDx Talk “The Power of Personal Story”. She suggests sharing with others “this is what you need to know about me to really know me” and how this revealing of who you really are can free you up to be who you are truly capable of being, to expand your ability to connect and innovate.
3) Declare How You Feel In The Moment – The next time you are feeling uncertain or embarrassed, just declare it. I am a bit uncertain about this. I start with “I have a confession to make”. It usually gets people to listen and be prepared for what’s coming next. The fact is that when you are uncertain, most people know that anyway. Putting it out in the open creates an environment of greater authenticity and truth. As a leader this culture of authenticity, transparency and truth is what we want to grow in our organizations. When you are able to be vulnerable you give others permission to do the same and it creates greater connection and honest conversations within teams and organizations.
4) Admit It When You’re Wrong – When you as a leader role model accepting your mistakes, it creates a culture where people can take accountability for failure, to learn from it, and to move on. It also creates a culture of innovation where risk-taking is accepted. Without acceptance of failure, cultures don’t tolerate calculated risk-taking. What this requires from us as leaders though is the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to accept ourselves as we are (and thus accept others as they are), and the humility to say “I am sorry”.
5) Admit Your Weaknesses – As leaders we are not perfect. It is really the strongest leaders who are able to admit their weaknesses. When we openly recognize our own weaknesses we allow ourselves to seek team members who can complement our skill sets, creating well-balanced and diverse teams where each person brings unique strengths to the table. We also get powerful advocates who are willing to step up to help us, if we are willing to ask them to, to grow in our area of opportunity.
6) Recognize Others for Their Ability to Be Vulnerable – When someone has stepped outside of their comfort zone to be vulnerable, authentic, and honest, take a moment to recognize them.
7) Celebrate Your Imperfections – When you notice something about you that is imperfect, give yourself a high-five, do a celebratory little dance, and say “now isn’t that adorable”. Seriously, try it. You’ll be surprised how much better that feels versus the usual stern reprimand you get from your inner critic. A person who commented on this blog post suggested that fully accepting ourselves (including our weaknesses) is a huge step toward being able to be vulnerable. So here’s an exercise to try. List out your perceived weaknesses and then next to each write down why this “weakness” is a gift. How has it served you? You’ll be surprised about what you will learn. It will help you rewire your brain for accepting all the gifts that you are.
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