Vulnerable: Emotionally open to attack, harm, or damage. —Merriam-Webster.com
We were young and old, male and female, leaders and coaches, sitting in a circle at the retreat center that houses a profound learning experience called Presence-Based Coaching. We were learning to learn from each other. When we started talking about vulnerability, the room quieted in our struggle to understand what it meant in our lives and work. This learning is part of a lifelong journey for those of us who yearn to make deeper connections with other people.
We talked about how the word “vulnerability” is taboo in most arenas of our lives, but particularly in the places where we work. We imagined that our aversion to what became jokingly known to us as the “V word” was bound up in the part of us that didn’t want to admit our failings. We fear emotional attack and judgment. We understood that the ego has a strong grip on us and recognized our own fear that we would be rejected by society and not liked by others when we were vulnerable.
We gained more insight as the week progressed that we were becoming vulnerable as we sat in our circles, ate our meals, went for walks together, and just did the things we did when we had so much time together in an enclosed space. As we opened our hearts to each other, we demonstrated the power of vulnerability and deep connection even if we would never see each other again.
In your work world you rarely encounter physical harm. The harm you most often protect yourself from has primal names like rejection, shame, humiliation and disgrace. You’ve felt these things at some point and you don’t want them to visit again. After all, aren’t leaders strong, resilient and courageous?
Yes, the best leaders are all of those things when times call for it. At the same time, none of those things work or matter if they don’t stand on a strong foundation of healthy relationships. And healthy relationships begin with opening yourself up—in other words being vulnerable to those primal things you don’t want to feel.
Your leadership will ascend when you open your heart in these ways:
- Ask for help when you need it. Nobody has to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders, and people want to help. Who can help you?
- Tell stories that connect you with others, even the ones that might show you in a less-than-ideal way. Chances are that others have had similar experiences and you can learn from each other. What stories show you as less than perfect?
- Admit failure out loud because we all fail at something. Failure connects us to the larger community when we openly admit it. The shared experience of failing draws people together. What failures are you willing to admit to?
The “V word” is an honest word that can connect you with others. It requires much of you, but it gives back so much more. It’s OK to show your vulnerability.
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive consulting firm.