Vulnerability: A 21st Century Leadership Skill

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Vulnerability gets a bad rap. Just hearing the word makes people uncomfortable. Try starting a conversation with most men about vulnerability and it’s highly likely that they will consider it an affront to their manhood. Incorporate vulnerability as a strategy for inclusive leadership and you probably expect to be laughed out of the building. Except that’s a story you're telling yourself. The truth is, something wonderful happening is just as likely. People, possibly even men, will trust you, will want to follow you and actually begin to consider giving it a try themselves. And when this happens, anything is possible. Widely recognized expert on vulnerability Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

The truth is, that companies who understand how to attract and retain their high-level talent will need more than traditional business acumen from their leadership, especially male leaders and the culture that they’re charged with defining.

If companies want to attract, retain and advance talent, then creating and committing to a culture where people feel safe bringing their whole selves to work is required. How and who they do this with starts at the top. By inspiring executive management to lead from the heart and/or engage men as allies, it sets the stage for the entire enterprise to shift into a true culture of inclusivity led by and for their talent.

Whenever we feel uncomfortable enough to be real is where the journey of vulnerability starts. I’ve learned, as a professional, that when I’ve been willing to share my vulnerability with women, their response has been feeling safer. Being vulnerable with men, on the other hand, was a different story.

It was check-in time during preparation for a men’s leadership retreat weekend. I was one of a team of leaders. It was almost my turn to check in and to share what was true for me. I recognized something bubbling up inside me that felt like sadness mixed with fear. Digging in deeper I saw I was afraid to reveal and even feel a deep grief. The story I made up was that if I let on that I was sad, the men might think less of me. Even worse, that they wouldn’t follow my leadership because they could see my weakness.

As the oldest boy in my family, I learned a few things: men don't show our weak side. Men don't let on that we’re afraid. Men don't cry in front of other people, let alone other men. We keep our problems to ourselves. If we’re hurting, we tough it out. Family structures, society, and the media have all contributed to the perpetuation of these myths.

Sitting there among the men, the fear that if I told them what was really happening inside of me, that something bad would happen, was visceral. But I took a chance anyway. I summoned the courage and shared my truth about how much I was hurting because of the estranged relationship I was having with my brother. The reason I pushed myself to take the risk? Because I heard other men in the group go first. Hearing them share gave me permission.

When I risked my deepest vulnerability with these men without filtering my truth at that moment, tears came and I blasted through my fear. The biggest shock was that I didn't stop breathing, I would live after all! The feelings that followed were nothing less than extraordinary: I felt relief. I felt space. I felt HUMAN. I realized that feeling the pain actually healed it and set the stage. In front of 40 men, I let my guard down, showed my truth and opened up to being totally surprised by what happened next.

Men came up to me and told me they trusted me, that they respected me and would follow me anywhere. At first, it was hard to believe it and let it in because in my experience, being vulnerable is counter-intuitive, especially for men. But when I looked into their eyes I saw it…their pain, their desire for release, and that by me simply taking a risk, to show ALL OF ME, warts and all…my imperfections...my humanity...I gave them permission to be open, and to be vulnerable and human.

If today’s inclusionary leader wants to be the best leader he or she can be, it will require that they muster up the courage to lead from the heart. The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin root for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.” This is especially true when it comes to engaging men as allies.

The current male leadership paradigm and the toxic culture it sustains is being called into question as a consequence of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Millennials and Gen Z, who will soon make up the majority of the workforce, are not shy about their aversion to the outdated patriarchal leadership model. Healthy masculinity is an important element of the new leadership paradigm, waiting for men to wake up, and step up into intersectional and inclusionary leadership. It’s incumbent that today’s leaders adopt and model heart-centered leadership, which calls for vulnerability at its core.

Your experience might not look like mine. But the struggle, doubting yourself, filled with anxiety, not sure what to do, is probably familiar. If you only take one thing from my experience, know that in this space, you have a choice. Option One (not recommended): Pretend that everything is fine, though be warned that the smart people you’ve likely surrounded yourself with will see right through this façade and that keeping up the façade will require additional and unnecessary energy. A potential unintended consequence is your people doing the same by mirroring their own inauthentic behavior back to you, and not trusting you. Option one is not efficient nor is it recommended for the long term.

Another option is mustering up the courage to be human and to share your truth. Ultimately it’s the opportunity to be an inclusionary leader. What might happen? It’s likely that people will follow your lead, trust you, and bring their best efforts forward because of the example you set.

In my work, I’ve found men are having an experience similar to mine. That they are looking for leaders to give them an example. They’re interested in seeing an authentic human experience, as opposed to spending their energy holding up a façade of perfection, the standard 'everything is handled', an 'it’s all good' scenario. Developing the ability to be vulnerable, a sign of true strength, is what will give directors and team leads, middle managers, and individual contributors the trust that they can bring their “A” game.

Building vulnerability muscle takes some effort. I’ve outlined a checklist, with a conscious partnership of the head and heart as a prerequisite. I recommend that you try this in your personal life first before you try this at work.

  • Consider vulnerability a sign of strength.

  • Identify someone you trust, that you feel safe enough that you can be honest.

  • Check in with yourself and share with this person something you would rather they did not know- yes this is where courage is required.

  • Ask them what was true for them as a result of you sharing this.

  • Let in what they shared with you.

  • Try this with someone of a different gender.

Each time you do this, it should get easier. Please share your experiences.

Colton Edwards