What Is Vulnerability?

I’ve written about the value of vulnerability in a few previous posts, but today I’d like to talk about what we really mean when we talk about being vulnerable in leadership roles.

So what exactly is vulnerability?

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure.” These are all scary things to contemplate, which is why we tend to avoid vulnerability at all costs.

Because the term has so many negative connotations in our culture, Brown defines vulnerability by debunking some common myths about vulnerability.

  • Vulnerability is not weakness.

It may be a cliché, but it’s true that without risk there is no reward. If we were never willing to risk getting hurt, nothing would ever be accomplished. Brown argues that although we often associate vulnerability with negative emotions like fear, embarrassment, shame, and disappointment, it is also “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” All connections and relationships require this vulnerability because it is the foundation of authenticity and trust. To equate vulnerability with weakness is to suggest that emotion is weakness, which leads to a wide range of bad leadership practices. Rather, the choice to be vulnerable comes from a place of strength, courage, and empathy.

  • Vulnerability is not something you can opt out of.

Another great argument for embracing vulnerability is that it’s simply unavoidable. Often what people mean when they say they “don’t do” vulnerability is that they avoid situations that make them uncomfortable, which is the exact opposite of what a good leader does. This is not a position of strength—it’s a symptom of denial. It’s better to learn to manage the anxiety created by vulnerability than to try to avoid it altogether.

  • Vulnerability does not mean there are no boundaries.

Practicing mindful vulnerability means knowing where to draw the line. For vulnerability to be a productive experience, it needs to be practiced with those who have earned our trust. Avoiding vulnerability deprives us of the experience needed to figure out what these boundaries are. However, if you are in a leadership position, the onus is on you to show vulnerability before expecting others to follow suit.

Does that sound like a tall order to you? It may be time to talk to a coach about how embracing vulnerability can make you a better leader. I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me via my websiteLinkedIn and Twitter.

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