No wonder we are so challenged by the idea of vulnerability, especially personal vulnerability. It was a revelation to me to do an internet search on the topic. What came up first and most was this kind of explanation:
- the inability to withstand the effects of a hostile environment
- window of vulnerability as a time frame within which defensive measures are reduced, compromised or lacking
- Achilles Heel
- capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt
- open to moral attack, criticism or temptation
No wonder most of us shudder when the topic of vulnerability comes up. It is in our collective consciousness and organizational cultures as weakness not as strength although much research confirms the power of vulnerability as pointed out by Brene Brown – beautiful and powerful in her own vulnerability.
I an in a renewed deep dive into this exploration thanks to the conversation that may have surprised and delighted me the most at The Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Innovation in California at the end of August 2012. A conversation I did not expect to be witness to or our high tech company participants to be in.
It arose out of a World Cafe conversation on complexity in response to the third question: what’s stirring in you now as you contemplate complexity (after exploring complexity they’ve been in and barriers and supports for being in complexity)? My attention was caught by a table where two men and two women were deep in a shared reflection of where vulnerability meets credibility.
The conversation went something like this:
“Yes, I know it’s a good thing to be vulnerable, but how do I be vulnerable and still be credible as a leader, in my organization.”
“It’s not safe to be vulnerable. You are seen as weak. How can you be vulnerable and not appear weak?”
“I would lose credibility.”
“First you need credibility, then you can be vulnerable. But how much credibility is enough?”
“Maybe allowing yourself to be vulnerable will show your credibility.” Is there such a thing as credible vulnerability? What does that even mean?
All of this led me to wonder what we mean when we speak about vulnerability – what’s in the field? A lot about weakness and protection it seems. This resonates with my journey personal journey, one of Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Open Heartedness. The invitation was to move beyond believing emotions make me weak to understanding them as a guidance system that will never steer me wrong if I pay attention. In the context of leadership, particularly participatory leadership, vulnerability does not equal weakness, defense systems do, but how and why is that so?
Thankfully Brene Brown is turning vulnerability (shame too) on its head so we can lean into it differently. She says, “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy ~ the experiences that make us the most vulnerable.” And also make us the most human.
Sounds pretty personal. What does it have to do with work? Because as much as we try we cannot be one person at home and another at work. We suffer from the incongruency and it shows up wherever we show up. People sense it, even when, especially when, we try to hide and know, from the place of deep knowing, when they have encountered someone in the fullness of their authentic journey and their vulnerability. They often name it as courage.
Brown says what we are most seeking is connection. It is why we are here, it gives meaning and purpose to our lives. I hear the yearning for it in so many people who are drawn to Art of Hosting and related gatherings. In order to have connection, we have to let ourselves be seen. Truly, fully, seen. But then we risk people seeing our weakness, our shame, any inauthenticity or lack of integrity we feel we may be carrying. We make ourselves vulnerable.
Interestingly, when I looked up the definition of credibility it is the quality or power of inspiring belief; the quality of being believed or accepted as true, real and honest. Seems to describe what I think of as one aspect of vulnerability. And it’s simple.
Given this definition, the relationship between credibility and vulnerability is so intimately entwined it is hard to separate out which comes first and which you need more. If we can begin to see vulnerability for the strength and authenticity that it is, instead of as a weakness we cannot show others, our credibility instantly begins to rise. But how?
There is no simple solution to this. It requires courage and risk and a path of hosting yourself, growing self awareness and presence. It requires the courage of being imperfect and of compassion – for self and others, particularly for self. Finding the way to allow ourselves to be vulnerable without inviting criticism or recrimination – the fear of which intimidates us and makes us believe we need to protect ourselves. This is the conundrum.
Vulnerability is part of an intentional journey of learning to find our voice from the depths of our strength, our sense of worthiness, love and belonging, from the place of whole heartedness. It is also part of the art of what we do. The only way to trust is to risk. The only way to risk is to trust. The only way to do this is to do it. Risk as much as we dare. Pause. Reflect. Learn. Embody. Trust. Risk a little more. Eventually we shift the shape of our experience, our understanding, our credibility and our vulnerability. We live into it as the asset it is rather than the deficit many of us have experienced it to be. It is not our vulnerability that is the challenge. It is our fear of our own vulnerability that brings the weakness.
We didn’t name this conversation. It showed up in an unexpected place. Speaks to the yearning. Speaks to what’s missing. Speaks to the invitation. Speaks to the first step. Easy. Difficult. Complex. Simple. Choose.
Lately, I, too, have been thinking of Brene Brown’s work. I met her at my professional conference in March and have yet to fully process the impact of her words.
However, what is emerging, in two conversations this past two weeks, one about organizational culture change and accountability, and the other about men giving voice to incidents of childhood sexual abuse, is the recognition that our insidious and pervasive culture of shame and shaming, obstructs these shifts, particularly because its modus operandi is silence. My hunch is that shame is a, if not the, root cause. As I have sensed, too, with our epidemic of bullying.
Thanks, Kathy, for providing the impetus for me to begin to write about this.
The topic of shame and its role in shadow and lack of voice is not one I’ve explored yet — loads of interesting questions there. Deeply curious to see what more emerges.
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