At the beginning of each new year, I love to ask the question Mary Oliver so eloquently phrased, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
A look back
As I look back on the last year and forward to the next the word vulnerability keeps surfacing as it relates to all things, but particularly leadership. As I have alluded to many times in my writing about Emotional Intelligence and Self-Awareness, the essence of leadership is one’s willingness to be seen, to be visible, to be at risk, and yes, to be vulnerable.
As David Whyte, a world-renowned poet, author, thinker, and organizational speaker says, “To step into a leadership role is to hazard ourselves in the world, both for others and for something we can’t fully articulate.”
What does becoming a more vulnerable leader do for me and those I come into contact with?
One of today’s leading experts on social connection, Brené Brown, conducted thousands of interviews and found the root of social connection is vulnerability. She defines vulnerability as “the courage to be oneself.” She sites examples of a vulnerable leader as one who replaces “professional distance and cool” with a leader that is comfortable in uncertainty and risk. A vulnerable leader may call a colleague whose child is not well to check-in, or you may hear a vulnerable leader take responsibility for something that has “gone wrong” at work. You will certainly hear a vulnerable leader ask for help.
I don’t need to tell you the importance of building the capacity for human connection in the workplace. I also don’t need to tell you that it is missing from many teams, projects, divisions, and organizations. The good news is rather ironic. While the foundation of vulnerability is accepting a loss of control, individuals have absolute control over their willingness to emerge as more vulnerable leaders. While many leaders have been “raised” to project a certain image regardless of what is going on inside them, this strategy often backfires. Authenticity builds connection and, in my experience, leaders who are open to being vulnerable, comfortable not having all the answers, and open to new perspectives, are far more effective in the workplace and beyond.
As David Whyte states, “Vulnerability can be understood not as a weakness, but rather as a faculty of perception, illuminating the universal, human necessity of asking for help … I don’t have all the right answers actually and I am genuinely interested in the contributions of others. The invitation is to live in the frontier between myself and another.”
When leaders are willing to live on this “frontier” others respond, organizations shift and become more resilient, productivity goes up, turnover goes down, and employee and stakeholder satisfaction numbers improve. It does start with you, with me, with a colleague. It can only start with the individual which is both empowering and daunting. Nobody ever said life on the frontier was easy but I believe it is more fulfilling than the isolation and pressure that comes from not aligning with our truest self at work or anywhere.
How do I become a more vulnerable leader?
Let the protective coatings fall away, one at a time, until you feel like you are aligned with your true nature even when you are at work. You have to be okay with criticism and praise, as Brown quotes, “I am dangerous, I like myself so much.” A vulnerable leader shows up fully as themselves and therefore able to commit to the team and the organization.
Once you are in alignment with your true nature, you will recognize many assumptions you were making and their impact on you and those around you. The next time you need to have a conversation you don’t want to have, look at that assumption and step fully into the discomfort, then proceed with the confidence that you are fully aligned and Half a Shade Braver.
When you have the ability to question your initial reactions to events and people in the workplace and to come at things with an open heart versus full body armor, the lack of resistance you feel will be all the motivation you need to stay on the path of growing your vulnerability.
A new year
Upon reflection of all that has come before and anticipation of all that is on its way, I am left with the choice to be vulnerable in the present. It seems from this vantage point, this moment in time, there is no other option that fully honors the pulse of this “one wild and precious life.” What do you choose for this moment, this day, this new and burgeoning year?
I will leave you with an excerpt from David Whyte’s poem, To Make a Promise as you step into this new year with the hope of becoming…
Let your words join
one to another
the way stone nestles on stone,
the way water just leaves
and goes to the sea,
the way your promise
breathes and belongs
with every other promise
the world has ever made
Now leave them to go on,
let your words
carry their own life
without you, let the promise
go with the river
Have faith. Walk away.