Can Vulnerability be a Strength?


Recently, I watched a TED Talk by Dr. Brené Brown on “The Power of Vulnerability.” If you look up the definition for vulnerability, it says “open to censure or criticism; assailable.” It means potentially taking an emotional risk and allowing yourself to be exposed. Dr. Brené Brown also defined it as “the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantees.”  In other words, allowing yourself to be vulnerable can be scary.

When I work with teams and leaders to help them better understand their strengths, we mainly focus on the positive aspects of embracing what you do best.  Yet strengths can sometimes be misunderstood or get us into mischief.  For example, people who are highly Analytical enjoy searching for underlying  reasons and causes.  They tend to say things like, “prove it” when presented with ideas.

This can lead to mischief when others feel as though their ideas are being shot down or discredited.  So it’s helpful if you can say to another person, “I hope all my questions won’t make you uncomfortable;  it’s just me being analytical.  I like to ask a lot of questions in order to better understand how you came to your conclusions. Perhaps I can use my analytical thinking to be a thought partner for you.”  It means being more self-aware and also open to feedback from others about how your actions impact them.

When most people hear the word “vulnerable”, the first thing that comes to mind is weakness.  This is why most leaders don’t allow themselves to be vulnerable. What if being vulnerable just means being more open and real with others?  Often in my workshops with teams, I will ask the leader to participate in an exercise based on appreciation.  The leader is asked to take one minute to tell each member of the team what strengths he or she brings to the team.  Then team members have one minute to tell the leader what they appreciate most about that leader’s strengths.  The leader is only allowed to respond with “thank you” or “thank you and will you please say that again.”

the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantees

Exposing yourself to the unknown and receiving thoughtful, genuine, and sometimes surprising feedback about your strengths can be a powerful experience.  By allowing yourself to be vulnerable, you can open up conversations with others that you don’t often get to have in the workplace.

When I was first launching my coaching business, I was asked by a professor from my earlier Master’s program to be a keynote speaker at an alumni reunion luncheon.  He asked me to speak about taking the leap from being in the corporate world for many years to being a coach with my own business.  Some members of the audience were well established coaches with thriving businesses and I felt uncertain about what value I could add, since my journey was still so new.  Still, I made a conscious decision to show up authentically and tell my story.

In my talk, I acknowledged the difficulties of starting a new business and spoke of my passion for being of service to others.  I shared a few stories of success and where I felt I still had a lot to learn.  I made a point of injecting both humor and gratitude into my presentation.  I tried not to take myself too seriously (in the past a huge stretch for me) and let the audience know how honored I was to be able to tell my story. I showed up without having all the answers.

Towards the end of my talk I told the story about how recently, when I arrived back into the U.S. after a trip abroad, the customs agent asked me what I did for a living.  I was taken aback for a moment as I was still evolving my coaching business.  Without really thinking though I replied, “I am a leadership and team coach!”

I shared with the audience how great it felt to step fully into my new professional identity as I physically stepped forward towards them. At the end of the talk, the reception was overwhelming.  Many of my former peers congratulated me on having the courage to follow my passion.  I was shocked when a complete stranger, a very successful VP of a large corporation, came up to me, hugged me first, then introduced herself and said, “Wow, you are a very powerful speaker!”

The lesson learned for me was that my showing up vulnerable meant my showing up authentic, and it clearly resonated with a lot of the audience members.  It was a powerful lesson. It taught me that sometimes just allowing yourself to show up and be of service to others without any expectations can help you better connect.

So I ask you as a leader or as a valuable team member in your organization, what would it mean for you to play around with the idea of allowing yourself to be a little vulnerable with others?  What if you could embrace the idea of partnering with people who have strengths that perhaps are not strengths for you? What would it look like if others saw you as open and willing to connect on a whole new level?