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Navigating Feelings of Vulnerability During Challenging Times

Throughout this time of (ugh, I’m going to say the phrase we are all tired of) “unprecedented change,” I’ve been asking my readers, clients, and social media followers to tell me what’s been most pressing for them at this time of great uncertainty and change.  One word:  vulnerability. Some people have been facing intense feelings […]

Throughout this time of (ugh, I’m going to say the phrase we are all tired of) “unprecedented change,” I’ve been asking my readers, clients, and social media followers to tell me what’s been most pressing for them at this time of great uncertainty and change. 

One word:  vulnerability.

Some people have been facing intense feelings of vulnerability, either personally and professionally, all of which are normal. Many entrepreneurs and employees alike have been reflecting on the value of befriending vulnerability, particularly at this uncertain time. Others are preparing a re-entry into work, trying to sustain their convictions about the palpable powers of vulnerability. Since I work with visionaries at all levels and backgrounds determined to change the world, I ask this one key question:

As a visionary, have you experienced the benefits of vulnerability?

The traditional definition of vulnerability is to be capable of, or susceptible to being wounded or hurt; being open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc. Most people in business understand these definitions and avoid vulnerability at all costs. Nowhere does this have more impact than in leadership circles, that are prone to creating Groupthink and/or other barriers to true communication. Great communication starts with vulnerability.

However, recent research in leadership has exposed many old ways of thinking as outdated, ineffective, and damaging. With today’s emphasis on human relations, employee engagement, and softer leadership skills, greater emphasis is being placed on interpersonal connection and consideration for people.

Why? Because we’ve learned that employee satisfaction is paramount to organizational success. People simply shut down or leave if they don’t feel appreciated. The focus is transitioning from leaders to employees, although this has yet to make deep inroads into every organization.

Autocratic leadership styles are yielding to democratic ones, where people are individualized and supported. Harsh, impersonal treatment is changing to accountable, considerate acts of empowerment. Cold, impenetrable leaders are learning humility and vulnerability.

Definitions are changing with the times, and these behaviors are recognized for their benefits— for employees and leaders alike. The transformations are not easy. It’s difficult to overcome ingrained paradigms. But if leaders can do this, the rewards are unlimited.

Perhaps the most challenging soft skill many leaders still have trouble grasping is vulnerability.

False Notions of Vulnerability

In my work as a coach, I often see how the word vulnerability generates negative impressions for leaders because of past experiences— their own or people they know. Generally, vulnerable situations don’t go well, so leaders do what they can to avoid them. They see vulnerability as having their weaknesses or mistakes exposed, which leads to criticism of their abilities or character.

When leaders believe that criticism reflects negatively on them, a number of possible fears come to mind. Their worth in the organization feels devalued, which ultimately means that they are devalued. They sense they are appreciated less, trusted less, and likely not to be viewed as capable of handling challenges. In other words, their careers are handicapped. This can be a big blow to a leader’s world.

As Emma Seppälä describes in What Bosses Gain by Being Vulnerable, vulnerability tends to be accepted as a weakness. Leaders can be seen as being unknowledgeable or incapable, unconfident, soft, or ineffective. Typical scenarios of vulnerability for leaders include:

  • Promoting a new project that doesn’t succeed because of inaccurate assumptions.
  • Misjudging someone’s proposal and realizing the error.
  • Needing help from a colleague when the relationship is damaged or strained.
  • Trusting the unproven skills of a key team member on an important project.
  • Applying principles learned in a prior field that don’t really work in a new field.

The most successful leaders have learned that these kinds of seemingly vulnerable situations don’t need to portray weakness at all. Everyone makes mistakes, but it is a strong character that is willing to own up to them. Expressing need and being honest and up-front about mistakes reflects an inner strength that doesn’t rely on the approval of others, but rather confidence in oneself. Advances in soft leadership skills are overturning negative thinking about vulnerability and finding ways to make it positive.

What do you think? What false notions of vulnerability have you encountered? I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at [email protected]

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