There’s been a lot of talk lately about the importance of vulnerability. Too much of this talk has gone in the wrong direction, however, by focusing on people sharing their “shame” about this act or that, as a way for all of us to bond over our painful places.
While such shame-sharing may be appropriate at group therapy, it is generally not so in the workplace.
Still, there's a less wimpish form of vulnerability which we should all pay more attention to. It involves exposing your thoughts, opinions and ideas to public scrutiny. It entails owning and declaring your own point of view and not hiding behind the declarations of others.
Sometimes, it also means voicing your truth and accepting the risk of looking like a fool for doing so. There is actually a strong, confident shade of vulnerability that requires stripping down the mental scaffolding of self-preservation and exposing your emotions.
I recently participated in a performance feedback meeting between the CEO of a $400 million dollar construction company and one of his direct reports, the director of the company’s safety department. The CEO counseled the safety director, who had been bucking for a VP title for some time, to take more verbal risks.
The CEO explained that the delay in the safety director's promotion was due in part to the director’s reluctance to put himself "out there more.” Apparently, when it came to asserting himself, the safety director was playing it too safe.
What was the CEO’s ultimate advice? It had to do with strong vulnerability. In easy-to-understand language the CEO said, bluntly: “You’ll be ready to be a VP when I see you put your ass on the line more.”
What we can take away here is that the most psychologically secure leaders are those with the courage to "own" their viewpoints, to accept that their views will sometimes be met with skepticism or sarcasm. Few people, however, are just born that way. You get comfortable in your own skin as a result of putting your butt on the line over and over again.
How to get there? Here are some tips for developing strong vulnerability:
1. Identify and embody your values.
It’s easier to voice your truth if that truth is anchored to a deeper truth! What are the values that you hold most dear? What values do you consider to be your non-negotiables? Stitch your ideas and opinions to those values, and you’ll have more backbone.
2. Ask: What matters most?
In his book Why Courage Matters, Senator John McCain wrote, “You get courage by loving something more than your own well-being.” Another way to think about it is, what do you want so badly that you’d be willing to step over your fears to get it?
3. Seek your own counsel.
In a world that’s on a 24-7 social media spin cycle, one of the most productive things you can do is to get anti-social. Disconnect from all your electronic tethers and interruptions so you can hear yourself think. Spend uninterrupted time with your own thoughts. Seek the counsel of your inner wisdom. It’s in you. I promise.
4. Build relationship trust.
It’s easier to state opinions that are at odds with others' if you know doing so won’t damage your relationship with them. Be sure to invest time in developing positive and healthy relationships with those around you. Let your colleagues know that you respect them enough to be honest with them and that you invite them to do the same with you.
When it comes to leadership, vulnerability is an important concept. But it doesn’t have to be wimpy. There’s no shame in focusing more on the stronger side of vulnerability. You want to be a leader? Then go ahead and state your truth more boldly. Own your opinions unapologetically. And above all, put your ass on the line.