Create Everyday Courage by ‘Rumbling with Vulnerability’

by Eileen Rogers

We are in desperate need of braver and more daring leaders — those who have the courage to remove barriers and clear a path to good work, engaged teams and healthy workplaces. To do it well requires vulnerability, a word that makes people cringe. And with good reason: According to the dictionary, to be vulnerable means to open oneself to criticism or attack.

Most of us work in cultures defined by scarcity, fear and uncertainty. Why would we be vulnerable? The risk feels way too high. It’s right there in our language:

     I’m going to get my courage up tomorrow, and then do it.

     When I find the courage to have the conversation, I’ll do it, but for now… [add excuse here].

     Only heroes are courageous. No need for me to be the hero this time.

Yes, it happened to me, too. In the course of running my business, I was sometimes guilty of avoiding tough conversations, especially those that meant giving direct, honest and productive feedback. In the moment, it felt safer to avoid or ignore it and push it off into the future. Yet, when we “wait and see” if a problem will resolve itself, we are making a much more dangerous decision. The problem gets bigger, hairier and sprouts new and more serious consequences. We make it worse.

The antidote is something I call “everyday courage.” It requires serious doses of discomfort and, yes, vulnerability.

Dr. Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead, interviewed more than 150 global C-level leaders, entrepreneurs, nonprofit and family-owned-business leaders and found that courage is a skill, and it can be taught!

The first of the courage-building skill sets that emerged from the data is called “Rumbling with Vulnerability.” Vulnerability is defined simply as risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure. Nothing squishy about it.

The Six Myths of Vulnerability

To be and build more courageous leaders (those who are comfortable with risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure), we must talk about the myths that persist in our workplaces. I recognized all of them when I first read them.

Myth #1: Vulnerability is weakness. Is it hard and awkward? Yes. Is it weakness? No! It is a paradox, though. Vulnerability looks like courage in you, but it feels like weakness in me. Vulnerability is the first thing I look for when I meet someone, but the last thing I want to show that person.

Myth #2: I don’t do vulnerability. We all do vulnerability. But it’s important to make sure we don’t confuse systemic vulnerability with relational vulnerability. We don’t want vulnerable systems, but the people running them must be vulnerable. When they’re not, we start covering things up, not owning things — and mistakes happen.

Myth #3: I can go it alone. We are neurobiologically wired for connection, and the heart of connection is vulnerability. If a person is not vulnerable, that person cannot be seen.

Myth #4: We can engineer the uncertainty and discomfort out of vulnerability. Once we try to strip uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure from the experience, we then, by definition, bankrupt courage.

Myth #5: Trust comes before vulnerability. Trust and vulnerability are slow, building and stacking processes. Trust needs vulnerability and vulnerability needs trust. Both are built at the same time, over time.

Myth #6: Vulnerability is disclosure. Vulnerability isn’t disclosure, it isn’t over-sharing and it certainly isn’t inappropriate sharing.

My career “vulnerability training” was strictly on-the-job. I stumbled and tripped over the tough conversations required to grow, lead and build my company. It was risky at many levels for me; I didn’t want to risk doing it wrong, being wrong, saying the wrong thing, feeling uncomfortable, hurting someone’s feelings. I mostly just wanted to be liked as a person and leader.

Fortunately, I did get better and learned to implement “everyday courage.” I learned that the cost of keeping an underperforming team member isn’t just about their wages. It’s also about the respect lost from team members, who are always watching how their leader will handle it. It’s demotivating for them when someone who isn’t or can’t pull their weight is allowed to remain. What message did I send to top performers when I didn’t risk having important direct conversations? How many people did I lose who might have been able to turn their performance around if they’d been given clear and helpful feedback?

We push past our internal struggles and lead through discomfort. Vulnerability is not disclosure, over-sharing or inappropriate sharing. It’s staying open and curious, instead of defensive. It is hard. It does take practice.

After 40 years as president of her print and marketing company, Eileen Rogers’ encore career is now as a leadership coach and business advisor through her company One Creative View. She is a seasoned and accomplished entrepreneur and recognized community leader who is fiercely passionate about supporting and growing more vulnerable and courageous leaders. She is a certified Dare to Lead™ facilitator, Integrative Enneagram practitioner and executive coach. 


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