Vulnerability and the deep dark cave called personal development

perspectives Apr 19, 2017

Leadership philosophy in the past two decades has seen a much greater recognition of the importance of vulnerability as a key leadership strength. This stands in stark contrast to the historic, traditional notion of leadership. Traditional notions of leadership emphasise commanding, demonstrating strength and expertise, never exposing your weaknesses and being clear and decisive in setting direction.

We have observed the great power of an authentically vulnerable leader, and the difference that this type of leadership can make to creating authentic, open places to work. Yet the reality for the vast majority of senior leaders we observe and work with is that vulnerability is a bridge too far. In the face of the vulnerability challenge, the way they lead clings on to traditional notions. The fear of appearing like a fool if I don’t know the answer and perceived consequences of showing up as less than perfect, hang heavily in many of the corporate offices and boardrooms we have entered.

In response to the vulnerability invitation, we hear “Can’t we just let people be, recognise that being vulnerable isn’t for everyone and allow people to leverage other leadership strengths?”. While this is a fine premise for some leadership attributes, we believe that vulnerability is so foundational to creating an adaptive culture that organisations will simply fail to adapt if they do not learn to face into their vulnerable edge.

Why vulnerability is foundational for adaptive organisations

Five key principles of an adaptive culture are:

  • Building an adaptive culture is a journey, not a destination, therefore there is always more to learn
  • Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Build on our strengths and let go of what no longer serves us
  • Navigating complex environments requires a deep understanding of people, and that only comes with a deep understanding of self
  • Every organisation has a unique context; embrace that context rather than replicate “best practice”
  • Complex challenges can’t be dumbed down, however, they can be communicated in ways that are able to be understood and worked with

To live these principles requires not knowing, not being in complete control, taking risks, trusting others and exposing your own limitations in knowledge. All of these behaviours and mindsets are absolutely necessary to create an adaptive environment AND all require a level of vulnerability.

There are a variety of responses people have to the possibility of making themselves vulnerable. Some of the phrases we hear give some big clues to how people experience vulnerability:

  • Denial: “I’m okay, there is no need for vulnerability, it’s just the latest fad and it’s not appropriate in the workplace”
  • Deflection: “There are so many deadlines and commitments that there is no time for leadership, development or vulnerability”
  • Defeat: “This is just too hard, I am not cut out for this, I tried it and it didn’t work”
  • Delight and Determination: “Stretching myself beyond my comfort zone opens up learning and growth”

business man with his head buried in the sand

It can feel exhausting to manage the discomfort of sharing with the world that we are a less than perfect member of the species. Equally, it can be exhausting keeping up appearances and managing perceptions. Robert Kegan and the authors of An Everyone Culture – Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organisation describe this as the second job many people have in organisations.

What is particularly interesting about the research presented in An Everyone Culture, is that it has identified personal growth and making oneself vulnerable as essential to our longer term well-being. So how do we go about this?

To let go of our individual and collective facades requires action on multiple levels. The following are stepping stones towards building adaptive capacity that all require a level of vulnerability:

  • Start from a position of trust – an organisation can’t do real change work without trust, as people will not be prepared to disclose what is really happening for them and what their real fears and concerns are.
  • Be very curious when you don’t know the answer; not having all the answers frees us up to look for other alternatives.
  • Focus on ongoing, continuous growth. What is a suitable stretch in your learning and practices?
  • Identify where you default under stress. We all have our default positions. Identify the times your default inhibits performance and growth. Practice applying different approaches which support a new self-emerging beyond default behaviours.

It is likely that some of these practices will feel awkward, particularly if they are new practices for you. Yet they may well be the practices that biggest difference to building your capacity. The most courageous, powerful leadership moments we have had the privilege to see have been acts of vulnerability.

vulnerable businesswoman walking a tightrope or highwire

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