I remember years ago when my middle son, David, came home from kindergarten in tears because someone had called him a name. His mom, trying to console him, said, “Those are just words, they can’t hurt you.” David innocently replied, “But they do.” His innocence allowed him to feel this rejection. Children I believe are born with a tendancy to be vulnerable and over time we learn to shut off and attempt to protect ourselves. We can choose to close our selves off to hurt and to suffering. While it is important to protect ourselves from harm (such as setting healthy boundaries), much of life requires risk-taking. Life requires taking chances. To live authentically and fully, it requires being vulnerable.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics to their hit song, “I am a Rock” resonated with me so powerfully when I lost my dad at the age of 12. At that moment, I knew I needed to close myself off, to protect myself, and insulate myself from such unbearable emotional pain.
“I have my books and my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock. I am an island
And a rock feels no pain and an island never cries”
– Paul Simon & Ark Garfunkel
I felt the lyrics offered me a way to cope, to wall myself off from being hurt. While this might have worked in the short term, in the words of Brené Brown, you can’t selectively numb your feelings. If you numb the hurt, you also numb the joy. Therefore, to fully live, we must be vulnerable.
This is far from easy to do. Society tends to not value vulnerability, it is seen as a weakness. Yet, it is at the heart of authentic living and authentic relationships. This is true not only in our most intimate and closest personal relationships but also in our organizational settings.
Choosing To Be Vulnerable
If we are to be effective as leaders, we must choose to be vulnerable. We must be willing to show that we care, that we don’t have all the answers, that we want to understand each person’s individual journey. There is a quote that says, “A frightened captain makes for a frightened crew.” I think it is easy to confuse this belief with the notion that leaders must have all the answers, to be fearless, and to be invincible. This false bravado does not serve anyone. It is the opposite of vulnerability, it is the opposite of authenticity. A leader can be strong and simultaneously vulnerable. This is a rare combination that is greatly needed.
This type of authentic leadership, of risking to be genuinely seen, to be vulnerable, to feel deeply, and to care, is actually much harder than faking the toughness that society often claims to value. I believe that people long for vulnerable leaders, for authentic and caring organizations. This type of connection, empathy, and caring can exist beyond the boundaries of our families and closest friends. This can be co-created in our broader organizations and even communities.
I believe that there is tremendous potential for this approach to be applied to organization development and organizational change. When there is authentic connections, and individuals willing to be vulnerable and showing empathy for one another, we can approach organizational change in healthy and life-giving ways.
What areas in your life and in your organization can you embrace vulnerability? Have aspects of your relationships and interactions are you numbing and hiding from? What habits authenticity and vulnerability are available for you and your organization to embrace?
If you find yourself pondering similar questions, connect with me here or find me on LinkedIn. I would love to explore how you and or your organization can experience life to the fullest and engage in positive, transformative change. Together we can co-create healthy, living-giving organizations.