Vulnerability: The Courageous Cornerstone of Authenticity, Leadership

June 18, 2018 | Taryn Stejskal | HCI
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The cultivation of vulnerability in the workplace is a must if we want leaders to tell the truth, take risks, show up as their whole selves, share new ideas and be willing to disagree, challenge assumptions, and develop comfort with failure.

On a recent flight, I sat next to the CEO of a Fortune 250 company and we struck up a conversation.

When he learned of my role in global leadership development, he said, “You know, my people aren’t authentic with me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, when I get my leadership team together, the seats next to me are either empty or the last to be filled,” he said. “Also, they don’t disagree with me. I have a lot of ‘yes men.’ I don’t think anyone has the guts to tell me the truth.”

I thought about this for a moment. I often hear leaders express a similar sentiment, the desire for their people to be “real” with them.

“They might be afraid to be authentic with you,” I said, “but they’re definitely afraid to be vulnerable with you” I answered.

I turned to the CEO, sitting there next to me on the airplane and asked, “So, you want your people to be authentic and vulnerable. How vulnerable have you been with your people?”

He paused to think about this for a long while.

“You’re right” he said finally. “If I want them to be vulnerable with me, I have to have the courage to be vulnerable with them.”

It’s important we remember this: Vulnerability is our Greatest Measure of Courage

Vulnerability and I are well acquainted. We are the oldest best friends, but also sworn enemies. We usually fall somewhere in between on this continuum, circling one another uneasily. Vulnerability has gently led me by the hand to my moments of the most authentic expression and has roughly shoved me with both hands on my shoulders, causing me to stagger out of my comfort zone.

I have bowed at the knees of vulnerability, at the power of vulnerability to connect us to our humanity, and the humanity of others, and I have begged vulnerability to leave me alone.

At other times, through tears and clenched fists and crushing fears, I have pleaded with vulnerability not to entreat me to share that story. That part of myself. That experience. Anything but that.

In other words, I struggle mightily with vulnerability. I love other people’s vulnerability - their stories of strength and courage in facing down adversity. But when engaging my own vulnerability, I feel a combination of abject terror and insecurity. In this way, I am both the least and most vulnerable person you likely know.

Vulnerability is the Key to Resilient Leadership

I’ve researched leadership resilience and interviewed hundreds of leaders across the world, asking them one simple question: “Looking back, think of a time you faced a significant challenge. What was it about you and your experience that allowed you effectively address this challenge?”

I’ve found in qualitative data, now known as The Five Practices of Particularly Resilient Leaders, that vulnerability is the first practice; the foundation of resilient leadership.

Engaging Vulnerability

Vulnerability, as defined by my qualitative research, is the willingness to integrate our experiences holistically. Resilient leaders that engage the practice of vulnerability allow their whole authentic selves to shine forth. They allow their thoughts and feelings to be congruent with the self they project to the world.

So, if vulnerability is so important, what makes it so hard? Good question.

I also uncovered why so many of us have ambivalent relationship with vulnerability: Shame Bias.

Shame bias is the sequoia that stands between our noble efforts to share our truest selves with the world and paralyzing fear that when we do, the world will not accept us.

For example, when a colleague shares that they have been 30 years sober or that they are a survivor of childhood abuse, I bow down to these warriors with admiration for the adversity they have overcome. Yet, on the other side of the vulnerability coin, I fear, and even believe that if I share my story, the vulnerability of my truth will diminish me.

This is Shame Bias: The belief that if you tell your overcoming story, I will think more of you, but if I tell my story, you will think less of me.

There is a struggle in every good life, and within every good life, there is a struggle.

Over the last two years, I’ve embarked on my own journey to share my leadership resilience research globally and to overcome my own Shame Bias through public vulnerability. I call it my years of “speaking dangerously.” In front of keynote audiences of my leadership development and learning colleagues, many numbering in the thousands, I have honestly discussed my diagnosis of dyslexia as well as my trauma survivorship. The closer I brought these stories to my “regular life,” the greater the fear, the greater the vulnerability, and the greater the reward. The connection created by sharing my overcoming stories has become deeper.

Role Modeling Vulnerability

This past year, my husband and I decided to amicably and respectfully end our marital relationship. We still went on our annual family vacation in Vermont, a family camp surrounded by … you guessed it: families, many of whom we’ve known for years. Only this time, we were different. We were still a family, but my former husband and I are no longer a couple. We are friends, partners, supporters of one another, and co-parents.

There we were. Different from the family we’d been the year before. Just as I had told my stories of dyslexia and trauma, I once again felt immense fear about sharing the change in our relationship status. Would they be angry? Think we hadn’t tried hard enough? Feel uneasy around us? Exclude us because we were no longer married like them? It was my own personal petri dish of vulnerability.

As we shared the news, people pulled me aside. They were not angry or uncomfortable. They’d never seen anything like it, they said. “Classy” that we came together, they said. “Commendable and mature,” they said. “A role model for a healthy divorce and how to put the children first,” they said.

We were living our vulnerability through the change in our relationship, moment by moment, conversation by conversation, and rather than thinking less of us, as the Shame Bias would have us believe, they thought more of us for having the courage to show up, in a new partnership, wearing our vulnerability on our sleeves.

Creating Space of Vulnerability

How do we create space for vulnerability in our own lives and the lives of our leaders?

  • Be present.
  • Listen.
  • Allow others’ experiences and choices to be different than your own.
  • Accept more. Judge less.
  • Do not parse people. Recognize people as their whole selves, not as parts of pieces.
  • Recognize you are not alone – many people share your experience. Overcoming the shame of silence and keeping our experience in darkness requires vulnerability, and it builds community.
  • Don’t allow fear of the Shame Bias to keep you silent.
  • Step out of your comfort zone. Be brave enough tell your story and role model vulnerability. In doing so, you make it safer for others.
  • Remember that you are not your past – adversity is the very best catalyst for change and growth.

Remember: There is no shame in being honest. There is no shame in being emotional. There is no shame in being hurt. These are, in fact, the very gifts of what it means to be human.

How have you taken the first step or a giant leap in your own leadership toward vulnerability? How has the cultivation of your vulnerability and authenticity contributed to your resilience as a leader?