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Vulnerability in Leadership

One of the popular themes permeating our society is that of “emotional vulnerability.”

I recently heard the phrase, “In vulnerability is our power.”

I want to share my current thinking on that idea, and how it relates to leadership at work and at home.

In my view, the claim, “In vulnerability is our power,” is not a truth, but a slogan: a sound bite that contains partial wisdom at the risk of over-simplicity.

Let me explain.

In the world of nature, vulnerability predicts peril. Typically, it means increased danger of being eaten.

Deer rarely graze alone in an open field. Dolphins swim in pods. Camouflage shields creatures from insects to fish to large mammals. Throughout nature, reducing vulnerability increases the probability of survival.

We humans also reduce vulnerability to protect ourselves from unnecessary risk. When we lock our doors, guard our personal disclosures in unfamiliar social situations and limit our nighttime walks to well-lighted streets, we are saying “No, thanks,” to vulnerability.

These examples reveal that wrongly timed and wrongly placed vulnerability can jeopardize our physical and emotional safety. Police departments and security personnel remind us about this continually.

Emotional boundaries, safety precautions, and personal privacy make sense. But like all sensible habits, they can be taken too far.

The self-exposing behavior that can get us in deep trouble in one setting can help us tighten our bonds and reduce our anxiety in more familiar settings.

In established relationships, emotional vulnerability -- choosing to share information about ourselves that reaches beyond the safe and superficial -- can increase cooperation, understanding, and intimacy. I think of this as “strategic self-disclosure.”

Consider this example: A CEO I know shared a personal story with his business partner about the recent death of a family member. The story oozed with sincere emotion and vulnerability. The conversation became a moment of substance and relatedness for both.

Self-disclosure risks our vulnerability. It's uncomfortable. It acknowledges that we are only mortal after all, and not above the common human experiences of confusion, pain, and embarrassment. Personal disclosure is especially unnerving when we are in a leadership position, but it's on that common ground that we can build connection. And connection gives us leverage to influence others.

When sincere, self-disclosure emerges from reflection and purpose, our leadership can become even more potent. Vulnerability then can become our power.

As parents, we sometimes forget that there is a place for honest, personal sharing with our children. We ask our children to be open and candid with us, but to what extent is that kind of self-revelation a two-way street? Have you ever reflected on the advantages our young adults could have if they knew more about the inner thoughts and feelings of their parents and grandparents?

Business leaders have also swallowed the “strong leader” mythology. Too many bosses I’ve met are private to a fault. By keeping personal stories, fears, and uncertainties to themselves, they block the opportunity to genuinely connect with those who seek to better understand them.

I hope you can appreciate that emotional vulnerability requires careful discernment. In which specific relationships is self-exposure likely to be worth the risk? What level of deeper dialogue makes the most sense? And when is the most strategic time to bare our vulnerability?

The answer to this last question requires the most careful discernment of all. In my own reflections, I am inspired by a popular verse from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament that addresses timeliness.

In that spirit, I offer these reflections which, to me, capture the challenge of vulnerability:

There is a time for everything.

There is a time for feeling and a time for thinking,

A time for fear and a time for courage,

A time for clarity and a time for confusion,

A time for self-exposure and a time for self-protection,

A time for acting alone, and a time for requesting help,

A time for holding on and a time for letting go,

A time for connecting, and a time for separating.

“Knowing when" is a marker of responsibility, maturity, and love.

When vulnerability is appropriate, it can hardly be surpassed as a way to strengthen connection.

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