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Vulnerability and Leadership (Part 1)

FP Advance | Advise Better, Live Better

This week I take a look at the difficult, but important concept of vulnerability and how it applies to the leadership challenges you face in your business.

Vulnerability is part of the human condition, however the way we acknowledge, accept, and deal with it has big implications for us, both personally and professionally.

According to Dr Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston and public speaker “vulnerability is the combination of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” I don’t know about you, but in a lot of circumstances I try to avoid that stuff like the plague.

I think many of us try to avoid uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure to some degree. Addicts use a substance to cover it up. Some people go shopping to cover it up. Others eat too much, or work long hours, or simply avoid open and honest communication. The truth is we all have mechanisms for avoiding vulnerability.

But what’s this got to do with you and your business?

If you’re a leader, then people are looking to you to be real and authentic. At times, that requires being open and vulnerable. This isn’t the same as telling everyone about every problem you’ve ever had in a big cry for help, but rather it’s about being honest.

Charismatic, as-certain-as-muck leaders get the headlines. They always knew exactly what to do (or so we are told) as they set their surefire business strategy and bent the world to their vision.

I believe we are getting the shortened, sanitised version whenever we hear these stories. Admitting that sometimes they’ve failed, is not something these leaders want to share.

Because surely people will think we’re weak if we show our imperfections.

Brene Brown says:

“The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness. Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think. We end up hustling for our worthiness rather than standing in it. The good news is that I think people are tired of the hustle – they’re tired of doing it and tired of watching it. We’re hungry for people who have the courage to say, ‘I need help’ or ‘I own that mistake’.”

For your business to grow and succeed (in whatever way that means to you), there needs to be change and innovation. Innovation can’t happen without vulnerability. The most difficult thing about taking a risk is being willing to fail in front of an audience. That has to be okay, but often it doesn’t feel like it is.

I’m sure at some stage everyone has worked for a bad boss. What makes a bad boss? In many instances it’s the fact that failure isn’t an option. What a crappy culture. No risks get taken because failure is punished in some way.

In Silicon Valley they have a great saying; “fail it forward.” Venture capitalists know that the first couple of iterations of an idea won’t work. However they can still invest and encourage entrepreneurs to fail until they find the winning formula. That’s a courageous approach and one we can all learn from.

In an interview with Forbes, Brown provides an example of an entrepreneur who dared to fail greatly and achieved success as a result. She says:

“One of my favorite stories is about Myshkin Ingawale who, after learning about the unbelievable and unnecessary maternal child death rate in rural India, decided to do something about it. He wanted to develop technology that was effective and efficient at testing for anaemia in pregnant women.

He was a TED Fellow and when I heard him speak in 2012 he said, ‘I wanted to solve this problem so I invented something that would do it.’ The audience burst into applause. Then he said, ‘But it didn’t work.’ You could feel the let down in the room. Then he smiled and said, ‘So, I made it 32 more times and they all failed.’

But finally a smile slid across his face and he said, ‘The 33rd time worked and now deaths are down 50%.’”

Brown gives us some questions we can ask ourselves:

What’s keeping us out of the arena? What’s the fear?

Where and why do we want to be braver?

What’s currently protecting ourselves from vulnerability? What’s our armour? Perfectionism? Intellectualising? Cynicism? Numbing? Control?

A genuine attempt at answering these questions for yourself can provide ideas and options for future growth (personally and professionally). What do your answers tell you?

Next week I’ll be looking at four myths that surround vulnerability and how you might combat them.



Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, as well as the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead


Fast Company Magazine named Daring Greatly one of the top ten business books of 2012. She has spent the past 12 years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.

Her ground-breaking research has been featured on PBS, NPR, CNN, The Katie Show, and Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday.

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