November 2012

Vulnerability as Strength

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
Madeleine L'Engle

I had the privilege and pleasure earlier this month to serve as a learning team leader for Linkage, Inc.’s  Women in Leadership Institute.  Over 500 women gathered for three packed days at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to learn from some powerful keynote speakers, from the talented linkage faculty and from each other.

Foundation of Real Success

Dr. Brené Brown, the well-known author and researcher on vulnerability was the opening key note.  Her years of research leads to the conclusion that it’s our fear of failure and disconnection that disallows us to be vulnerable and to see and feel all the emotions that lead to our ultimate success and happiness. Because vulnerability is usually associated with weakness, we 'armor up' for our work and for life and mistakenly believe we are protecting ourselves.  The reality is that in denying our vulnerability, we are pushing away faith, hope, love, belonging, empathy, courage, creativity, trust, innovation, and the ability to change.

Brené says that we live in a culture where making yourself vulnerable – exposing your fears and uncertainties, taking emotional risks – is considered a form of weakness, and something most of us want to run away from. But Brené’s research exposes the positive outcomes from stepping into the arena of vulnerability. It is precisely when we expose ourselves – in relationships or at work – that we have the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives. Her research leads to this stunning conclusion: to be alive is to be vulnerable. 

Personal Vulnerability Moment...

As an executive coach, I find this body of work so relevant and important. While I have never thought about the word vulnerability in the way Brené  has defined it, I realize it’s at the core of the work I’m do with my clients and with myself.  

I recall my own moments of my hesitation when I was asked to participate as a learning team leader in this conference. I knew there would be 20+ learning team leaders who probably had much more experience and background in doing the work we would be asked to do. How would I stack up? Would I be as good as the other coaches who have done this for many years? Happily I was able to quiet the anxiety I felt and say yes to this amazing experience. And, the very people I was afraid of being compared to, became the greatest highlight of that week. 

Had I given in to my hesitation and fear, I would have missed the opportunity to meet an incredibly insightful learning team leader that I now look forward to continuing with our new-found connection.  It was a great reminder to me of our natural hesitation to be vulnerable in situations that could be uncomfortable.

Learning Team Discoveries

The participants assigned to my learning team at the Linkage conference were all women of great accomplishment, diversity and experience.  We spent two hours at the end of each day of the conference discussing the day’s learnings.   Brené asked us to think about this question:  What’s worth doing even if we fail…? If vulnerability is the birthplace of courage, what arena do we need to courageously step into?   The learning team opened themselves to address their most important issues and challenges, and as a result have opted to stay connected long after the conference. 

I realize that much of my work with leadership clients is about helping them find their own space of vulnerability so that they can make important changes and achieve successful results. As I reflect back on the clients that I’ve worked with over the past 2 ½ years, I realize I can point to their ability to become vulnerable as an important measure of their success. 

Where can you become more vulnerable to experience greater success and happiness in your life?

    “To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.”
    ― Criss Jami

    Learn more from Brené and her vulnerability research in this 20-minute TED talk

     Struggling with leadership effectiveness or business change?
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