One thing a global pandemic should have taught us is that we cannot escape being and feeling vulnerable. To think we can is naïve. The feeling of vulnerability comes from how we emotionally deal with risk and uncertainty. It is normal to feel vulnerable when we feel exposed. Courage comes from consciously working through feelings of vulnerability, no matter what the source. We all experience it, leaders, and followers alike. We all want to be courageous leaders, so how do we lead courageously with vulnerability?
Situations that trigger vulnerability
Vulnerability is an emotion that is triggered from all kinds of sources. Some are physical in nature, like actual risk to your physical safety or the safety of others. Others are a lot less visible, like potential emotional, political, commercial, or professional risks. For example, being in the military you will at some point come face to face with physical threats that trigger an emotional vulnerability response. You might be put in a situation that is physically risky (like being shot at), but the actual vulnerability you feel comes from how others will judge your action (or inaction). Similarly, you might work in a commercial firm that is working up a major deal. The deal could be worth a lot of money, and some in the group maybe wanting to act in a way that goes against your ethics or values. Challenging them may make you feel vulnerable to personal attack. How we process these triggers and choose to act comes down to acknowledging them and working through them rationally.
Note: For more information on a rational thinking process – see our article here on critical thinking.
Leadership & vulnerability
Leadership is particularly tough when it comes to dealing with vulnerability for two key reasons. First, many of us falsly believe our role as leader is to reduce vulnerabilities. Secondly, being the leaders creates situations where we ourselves in this role can feel even more vulnerable as the complexity of the role is far greater. As followers you focus on your own role and performance. But as leader, you are also accountable for the performance of everyone in your team. So, a leader who does not acknowledge vulnerability is immediately diminished. They no longer act courageously but live in fear trying to avoid the unavoidable. This leads to shifting blame or acting unfairly when feeling threatened, and miss acting on real opportunities. Worse still, they may try and hide this fear by constantly being on the defensive or offensive with others, leading to unethically behaviours. This is why it is so important to lead with vulnerability.
Sharing vulnerabilities improves human relationships
There may be times that acknowledging a vulnerability means sharing our uncertainty with others. It is human to not want to do this and expose our inner thoughts and fears, so we try and just press on by ourselves. But in reality, sharing our vulnerabilities with others actually improves our relationships with those around us. Being authentically yourself, warts and all, builds stronger connections with others. They feel trusted by you, which in turn builds trust with them.
Use vulnerability as a strength
Lead courageously with vulnerability means not treating it as a weakness to avoid, but an indication of what we need to pay attention to. It is our mind and body giving us cues. To turn this to a strength means having the courage to share this vulnerability with others so you can work through it with them. A problem shared is a problem halved and the added benefit is that it improves our relationships with those around us. Treating vulnerability as a weakness means we try to hide it, which leads us to acting poorly. If we act to avoid feelings of vulnerability we either steam ahead mindlessly without thought, or let fear lead us. In either case, these can make us behave in ways that do not support our values or enable us to grow. Facing our vulnerabilities means facing our fears and taking reasoned, sometimes difficult, but always honest and necessary action. That is leading courageously.