Leadership: Investing in Vulnerability

Let go of who you think you’re suppose to be; embrace who you are. ~Brene Brown

I had planned originally to title this post “How stepping away from school leadership helped me to become more of the leader that I knew I could be.” But it was too broad, very unfocused, and may have come across as derogatory and/or ungrateful. But in fact, I feel exactly the opposite: inspired and reflective. I am a learner. I have experiences. Good or not so. I reflect. And learn. And move forward. One of the biggest decisions in my professional career has helped me to learn. To clarify thoughts about leadership.

And, oh, move forward.

Nearly seven months have passed since I relinquished my school leadership role. My fears of judgment, guilt, and shame have subsided; I still have my insecurities. And with ample time for introspection and healthy doses of insight I feel safe in sharing that I hold no regrets about the decision itself. Based on the information, situation, and reality at the time it was the best decision. I feel an even greater serenity about what was once a raw and rather painful decision that lead to immense shame, guilt, and vulnerability. The story I told myself at the time was that I just ruined any possible future educational leadership opportunities. I showed too much of myself. Too much vulnerability. And yet, my brave heart tells me that I’m still a leader. I have always been.

Strange Partners

It’s probably safe to say that there are few human social subjects that have been written about as much as leadership. And I have my share of treaties: Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Machiaelli’s The Prince, Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, and most of Michael Fullan’s books (I recommend starting with Leading in a Culture of Change). There has always been a debate about what makes a great leader (including a debate on which are the best books on leadership), and the factors that constitute a truly effective leader. This post is not about that.

Now to be honest, I don’t remember much from any of these tombs. I read Carnegie because my father, a former school leader said i should. Covey was graduation gift from a relative, I think. Subconsciously, I probably took the bits that I need or that which resonated with me. But, for the most part, nada. Other than leadership requires investment. Of some kind. I think.

There is, however, one characteristic that many of the aforementioned books do not mention (or pay much heed to) nor is it truly acknowledged among and within organizations (it’s definitely underappreciated). That characteristic of strong leaders is vulnerability. Yes. One of the related misleading misconceptions of leadership is the fallacy of  investment as it relates to vulnerability. Or oppositely, and perhaps more accurately, it is the fallacy of strength as a necessary leadership investment. An investment in vulnerability? A divestment of strength? I believe that there is a difference between a vulnerable leader and a leader that shows vulnerability.

Myth of Vulnerability (or showing weakness is showing strength) 

Got twenty minutes?

If so, this terrific TEDTalk from researcher and storyteller, Brene Brown, will help to solidify why I believe that leaders that demonstrate vulnerability on a regular are the ones we need right now. More than ever.

Brown is the author of two of my favourite self-help books (both are about personal transformation and apt for leadership development ), Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead and Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution. In Daring Greatly, Brown reminds us that contrary to commonly perceived wisdom on the subject, vulnerability is more a sign of courage and strength, than it is a sign of weakness. Her research and insights gleaned on the subject are really like a breath of fresh air. In an educational climate where so many false and conflicting messages about strength in leadership abound, Brown clearly defines how the ability to be vulnerable reconnects us with our humanity. And it is here where we find our strength as leaders.

For me, Brown’s research and relevant findings fly in the face of the what we perceive as the ideal educational leader. The emotionally-metered, strong-willed, confident, and often fear-of-failure-driven individual. These individuals are the stereotypical strong, stoic person. Often view themselves as the rock of the school. Unwavering in their decision. Suppressing shame and guilt. Yes, Brown’s work is both refreshing and emboldening. For everyone. For leaders and their subordinates. Not only is having vulnerability essential to leadership, but showing vulnerability is equally so. Shedding a tear at the staff meeting? That takes courage. Not shame. Noe weakness. That takes strength. Brown belief is that vulnerability is part of health relationships both in personal and professional settings. Now that’s a worthwhile investment.

During my brief time in educational leadership I have observed much. Learned much. And grateful for much. One viewpoint that seems to recur among educational leaders (and those who write about educational leadership) is that good leadership is about investment. An investment in time and commitment. Many school leaders average a 60+ hour work week not accounting for weekends and evening responsibilities. Minding and managing budgets, subordinates, school property. And the constant self-reaffirmations that they must hold the big picture of school requires tremendous personal investment. In most cases, educational leaders do know what is best for their organization, and the people that they are responsible to and for. But what about an investment of the heart?

Do not misunderstand. I truly recognize that the aforementioned investments are very, very necessary and any successful leader must possess or work towards developing them. Organizational health demands it. (Full disclosure: I struggled with some of these investments as a school leader.) But one investment I held sacred above all others was that of relationships. Of connection. Of vulnerability. Brown also sheds a different light on her bottom line, “I believe that vulnerability – the willingness to be all in even when you know it can mean failing and hurting – is brave.” After studying empathy, vulnerability, courage, and shame for fourteen years Brown know of which she speaks. And yet, even in the new age of mindfulness, why are vulnerability and leadership still not recognized as even remotely compatible?

Vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. ~Brene Brown

Indeed, there is significant investment by individuals working towards leadership. Maybe we need to focus not on the quantity, but rather the quality of the investment of our leaders. More of the what and how rather than how much. Investment in the heart. Compassion. Empathy. Investment in one’s own vulnerability. Leadership recognized as more than superfluous relationships built on hierarchical platforms and perceived stereotypes. For it is an investment in the compassionate relationships with all of those whom we as leaders are responsible to and for that truly matters.

Have a story about a compassionate leader that doesn’t fear showing vulnerability?

Please consider sharing your experiences.


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