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Successful leaders are unafraid to be vulnerable

10 months ago by Clare McCartin

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I was recently privileged to see Brené Brown speak in Melbourne and I wanted to share with you some lessons, which stayed with me and I feel will resonate with any leader as they move into 2020.

Brené Brown is a social researcher and research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the role of Endowed Chair with the Huffington Foundation. She is also the Founder and CEO of Brené Brown Education and Research Group.

Brené has spent the past 20 years studying 'courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy' and is the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers.

For good measure, she is also the subject of the Netflix special The Call To Courage, and her TEDx talk, Vulnerability, has been viewed more than 40 million times and is in the top five most-watched TEDx talks in history.

Interestingly, the Richmond Football Club, AFL Premiers two out of the past three years, has been applying her findings for the past few years.

Hardwired to feel connected

At her talk in Melbourne in August, Brené spoke at length about the topic which catapulted her onto the world stage with her TEDx talk - vulnerability.

Brené said "humans are neurologically hardwired to feel connected", something which our survival depends upon. But for that to happen, we each need to take the step into vulnerability.

She explains that vulnerability is the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, such as the willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.

To illustrate her point, Brené talked about the investment we make in romantic relationships when we say "I love you" first.

What does it mean to be vulnerable?

In a work context, we sometimes need to make ourselves vulnerable on a personal level. This may be when we:

  • call a client/stakeholder we don't know and ask to arrange a meeting
  • ask to connect with someone on LinkedIn
  • walk into a cocktail function and strike up a conversation with two people who are already deep in conversation
  • pitch a service offering or new idea in a meeting
  • Vulnerability looks different for those we also deal with in our roles.

For our candidates, vulnerability may be calling to enquire about a job or interviewing for a job where they know half the panel members.

For our clients, it may be trusting us with their reputation and the reputation of their organisation to ensure we source candidates who are capable enough to deliver on their strategic ambitions.

Vulnerability is at the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it also appears to be the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love.

There is no courage without vulnerability. The two paradoxes of vulnerability [are] it looks like courage in you, but when I am doing it, it feels like weakness. That's the thing with vulnerability; it is not going to feel good.

Courage requires vulnerability

If not for the opportunity to have those vulnerable experiences, we wouldn't get the fist-pump, high-five moments we have in our team.

"We spend our entire adult lives trying to reconcile that we want to be brave, but we don't want to," Brené told those attending her presentation,

"There is no courage without vulnerability. The two paradoxes of vulnerability [are] it looks like courage in you, but when I am doing it, it feels like weakness. That's the thing with vulnerability; it is not going to feel good."

Despite this, Brené says "we have to learn to stay in it" in order to lead bravely.

"Vulnerability is not over-sharing, it is not crying, it is staying in it when you are uncertain," she continued. "It is managing risk. To me, vulnerability is being in the arena.

"It is not weakness, it is the courage to show up and put yourself out there when you can't control the outcome.

"If you think you are brave and you are comfortable, then you are not being that brave."

No effort without error and shortcoming

Brené has a plaque above her desk bearing a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, which she draws inspiration from.

"It is not the critic who counts," he said in April 1910. "Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."

Being vulnerable may be a big thing to ask of ourselves, but the rewards of doing so can be great.

As we all take stock of 2019 and prepare for an even better 2020, I feel these words couldn't be more true. It's the leaders who have the courage to be vulnerable who will have the most opportunities before them.

If it's good enough for the Richmond Football Club, then it's worth a try don't you think?


Clare McCartin is Senior Partner, Executive and Boards, with recruitment specialists Davidson. During the past 15 years, Clare has conducted hundreds of Chief Executive and senior leader searches in the health, aged/disability care, not-for-profit and government sectors. In 2016, she was named Seek Recruitment Consultant of the Year.

Article originally published by Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 6 January 2020.