Leaders Know the Myths of Vulnerability

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As promised a few weeks ago, I’m going to spend the next seven weeks sharing some of my favorite insights from Brené Brown’s bestseller Dare to Lead. Dr. Brown is well-known for her work on shame and vulnerability, and in an early chapter of Dare to Lead, she shares the six myths of vulnerability.

Please note: many great authors and thought leaders cover similar topics on leadership, teamwork, tough conversations, and the like. Brené Brown, Ph.D, is a researcher; her writing is based not only on years of clinical experience, but on hard data. So, if you’ve read her early work, Daring Greatly, you may remember her FOUR myths. But she is not stubborn; she has revised her list to the SIX myths that her research has uncovered. Her willingness to revise and update and be transparent is a leadership lesson in itself.

“Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.”

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery Publishing.

Myth #1-Vulnerability is weakness

I hope we’ve moved past this. Recent thoughts around leadership speak to the prominent role of humility and curiosity. Vulnerability is linked to the confidence that it’s okay to not know everything. We still meet people, though, who seem to believe that they have to have all the answers. How are you doing? Are you comfortable exposing that you don’t know everything, or do you find yourself saying things like “Oh, I knew that already.” Or “I know, I know. Not my first rodeo.”

Myth #2-I don’t do vulnerability

Myth #3-I can go it alone

For me, these two are linked together, especially when I think about the roles I play as entrepreneur and content expert. When going full-time with this business ten years ago, I thought long and hard about how big to make myself look online.

There are solo trainer/consultants like myself who find ways to use the words “We,” “our,” and “CEO” to make it seem like they’re a large firm. In reality, though, we’re all alone in our basements working desperately to get our first set of clients. Eventually, what I learned was something that expert mentors had been telling me all along—nobody really cares. All they care about is whether or not you can do the job. I settled on the more authentic “it’s just me” approach, and I am happy with it. But it’s a little embarrassing to remember how much thought I put into that decision and all the time and iterations that went into the first promotional copy.

Being regarded as an expert feels good, especially when one’s training, coaching, and guidance leads to solid results for clients. But there are moments that are on the edge:

  1. In 1999, I had my first corporate client that wasn’t a youth-serving organization. The owner turned to me after a session that revealed some morale issues within the organization and said, “Now what do I do?” I didn’t know what to say. But I sure felt like I had to say something good. I’m not sure I was very helpful from that point on. I never worked for them again.
  2. Another early client, in 2010, had issues that involved family dynamics. It was complicated because there was some co-ownership and transfer of shares, and it bled into their personal lives. I called a college friend of mine who had become a successful executive coach and asked for advice. It was sound, and I stayed with that client for four years.

Myth #4-You can engineer the uncertainty and discomfort out of vulnerability

I do some fairly intense work with executive teams using the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ program. In one session that I knew would be fraught with peril, I worked extremely hard the first of three days to make it safe for people to speak and share. When we reached the end of the day and did a WWW/TALA to close it out, one participant pointed out “We haven’t been uncomfortable yet. You told us that this would get uncomfortable.” Nodding heads indicated that I hadn’t pushed hard enough. The next day was messy. And way more productive.

Myth #5-Trust comes before vulnerability

I don’t think that Brené Brown and Patrick Lencioni hang out much. I don’t even know if they’ve met. But I’m struck by the way their work collides. Lencioni says that when people are vulnerable with each other, they trust more. Brown says when people trust, they’re more vulnerable. By letting go of control, taking a risk, and start by being open, trusting, and vulnerable, a leader can pave the way to make it safe for others to do so.

Myth #6-Vulnerability is disclosure

Whereas vulnerability aids disclosure, they are not the same thing. Being vulnerable may include disclosure in certain circumstances, but it isn’t a disclosure free-for-all. In fact, oversharing can have the opposite effect, because it sets an odd bar for others to attain. I once witnessed group after a team member shared a very dark detail of his childhood in a conversation where the topic centered around where people went to high school. With one overshare, the light-hearted conversation lost momentum and trust was lost. Oversharing can also cause people to wonder if you have emotional intelligence, or what Lencioni calls “people smarts.”

Deliberately, I have not paraphrased Dr. Brown’s thoughts on these myths. I encourage you to read Dare to Lead, and tune in next week as we explore perfectionism.

This is the first post in a short series featuring the work of Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead. Read the introduction post to this series here.

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