There is no denying that by nature we are vulnerable. As human beings and social creatures, we are naturally open to attack and capable of being hurt. But it is also true that by nature we don’t want to be attacked or hurt. As a result we find we’re always doing all we can to protect ourselves and hide what we see as our weakness.
Herein lies the vulnerability paradox. To be innately vulnerable while denying our vulnerability seems to be what is at the heart of being human, and more so, of being a leader.
The more we deny our vulnerability, the less influence we have on the world, the people around us, and ourselves. The more we hide away from what makes us feel uncomfortable, the less fulfillment and connection we experience.
So, what can we do about this?
The best way to have a beneficial relationship with your vulnerability — to manage and even leverage it — is to follow three steps:
Accept your vulnerability;
Experience your vulnerability; and
Show your vulnerability.
To have the courage to follow this process time and time again is what leads to long-term, profound influence over yourself, your environment and the people around you. Here’s how.
ACCEPTING YOUR VULNERABILITY
To be a leader is to be vulnerable, to be vulnerable is to be a leader. However as leaders and entrepreneurs we don’t want to be exposed to situations that make us feel ‘lesser than’, especially when we believe we need to be ‘more than’.
We strive to feel and give off the feeling that we are above the threat of attack or hurt. But this can never be true. We can’t pretend we don’t have an Achille’s heel, we can only build a healthy and symbiotic relationship with it.
We are all physiologically and emotionally open to attack from ourselves, others and the world around us but to differing degrees. Regardless of where you stand on this spectrum, the first step is to understand how you feel at risk, acknowledge that reality and accept it.
Acceptance is hard to practice in our culture. As humans we tend to have a ‘grass is always greener’ complex when often, if you look closer, the grass isn’t so. This complex persists because many around us deny their vulnerability which in turn reinforces our self-judgement.
So how can you begin to accept your innate exposure as a seasoned or aspiring leader? Through deepening your self-awareness, self-worth and empathy. Finding your own way of doing this is always the best way but some tried and true methods include:
Self-reflection in the form of journaling or retreat
Gathering evidence that you are not alone in your vulnerability through connecting with, and reading about, others’ stories
Increasing mindfulness through meditation and exercise
Sharing your story with people who love and support you
Building a habit of being aware of your thoughts, feelings and actions as well as those of the people around you
Often, acceptance is found quite spontaneously through experiencing adversity. But you don’t have to go through hardship to get there. The key is to experiment and find what works for you. Like anything that requires a change in your brain wiring, accepting your vulnerability paradox requires regular practice. Just like building and maintaining muscle requires regular physical activity.
EXPERIENCING YOUR VULNERABILITY
Once there is an acceptance of vulnerability, the next step is to experience it. This is about pushing your boundaries and stepping out of your comfort zone.
Leaders and entrepreneurs are constantly trying to minimize risk and exposure in their business and this can often be a sound strategy. However, when we do this too often with ourselves, the minimizing begins to look a lot like concealment which breeds distrust.
So once there is acceptance, the question then becomes ‘how can I experience the things that currently make me feel vulnerable in a way that is not detrimental to my growth?’ Ask yourself, ‘what feels uncomfortable yet doable?’ ‘What kind of experiences make me nervous in anticipation but during and after it make me feel strong and alive?’
By doing so you will be connecting with your vulnerability like you might a new friend and starting to build a symbiotic relationship with it. This process of personification makes it feel like your Achille’s heel is something manageable and less fearful.
As you experience and develop an understanding of being vulnerable, you will be primed to show it in an authentic way that is powerful not detrimental. The more you understand it, the more you can leverage it for growth.
SHOWING YOUR VULNERABILITY
Showing vulnerability can be the hardest step of all. This is true especially of leaders and entrepreneurs who have gotten to where they are through becoming adept at masking it.
It is not that successful leaders and entrepreneurs who have risen the ranks have less vulnerability. On the contrary, they are actually more open to attack. However, they are perceived as strong because they have learnt how to either embrace or conceal their vulnerability.
The difference is that over time, embracing vulnerability creates trust and connection, concealing it creates distrust and disconnection. And it is trust and connection that ultimately leads to profound influence.
As with accepting and experiencing vulnerability, showing it has no generic guide. We need to figure it out for ourselves for it to be genuine. But here are a few things to think about to spur your imagination:
Admit when you don’t know the answer
Admit when you are or have been wrong
Apologize for times when you have acted inappropriately
Listen actively and empathetically
Share your thoughts and feelings appropriately and authentically
Share past experiences of perceived failure
Ask for help and other’s opinions
Be honest in your conversations
Not rocket science hey! But, these things are easier said than done.
The key thing to remember is how you show it. Done well, you will appeal to people’s emotions, allow them to relate and connect with you, and inspire them with your show of strength and self-confidence.
It is important to build the social awareness and empathy to know when, where, how and with whom to show your vulnerability. The person needs to be someone you trust and you need to be able to communicate clearly with them. For instance in a work environment, the way you do this with your investors versus your direct reports versus your peers will be different.
It is also key that your self-awareness is deep enough that you have a clear understanding of your strengths, weaknesses and values. They will guide you in how to show vulnerability authentically. And being true to who you are here is the key to creating trust, deepening connection, and developing your influence.
VULNERABILITY AND INFLUENCE
So trust. How do we get people to trust us in a long-term, profound way? Not the easy short-term manipulation that is rampant in our culture, but the kind of trust that makes people want to follow you and keep following you.
Trust is developed when a person, and especially a leader, has accepted, experienced and shown their vulnerability authentically. When a leader or entrepreneur continues to inspire a deep sense of trust in their team and community, what naturally follows is influence.
This equation can also be turned inwards. When you can be honest about the parts of you that make you feel exposed, you are deepening your connection with yourself. And this increases your ability to empower yourself to make good decisions and live a life of fulfillment.
Building a beneficial relationship with your vulnerability requires self-awareness, self-worth and empathy. To accept, experience and show your Achille’s heel to the world takes courage. When others see that kind of bravery in a person, they feel compelled to follow them or at the very least, respect them. And this is what breeds profound influence.
Amelia Kruse is a Certified Leadership Coach based out of New York City.