LG5: Vulnerability

Here’s part 5. And boy, do I feel this one. Looking forward to any thoughts or stories you’re willing to share. Please feel free to leave them in the comments, or to write me at kfitz at kfitz.info.

Previously:

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Show up.

The approach to leadership that I’m describing here — starting where you are, focusing on the people around you, listening deeply to their concerns and desires — is not always easy. Working on building the kinds of connections that can bring people together to create transformative change requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. Opening yourself to really hear what those around you are saying entails lowering the protective barriers provided by your own assumptions and experiences in order to let other perspectives in — but lowering those barriers also creates room for criticism and sets the stage for a range of difficult emotional responses.

There is a kind of leader — especially one in a highly visible leadership position, likely to have been trained in traditional styles of management that privilege the strong leader who speaks clearly and decisively from a position of authority — who may worry that the passivity and discomfort implied in deep listening set them up to appear “weak.” And particularly the potential for emotional responses: showing their unease, their sorrow, their uncertainty, their regret feel too much like showing their belly. They may feel overexposed and vulnerable to attack.

Vulnerable, certainly — but vulnerability does not imply openness to attack. In fact, the association of vulnerability with weakness is part of the problem that we face in organizational life today. Leaders, we have long been told, are supposed to be strong. Decisive. Respected. Looked up to — and therefore elevated above the crowd. This remove creates protection, but it also creates distance. If we understand leadership to be grounded in relationship-building, in connection, we’ll begin to recognize that our leaders need to come down from their platforms in order to reach the people with whom they need to connect. This is not weakness, but it does require a willingness to make oneself vulnerable.

But if vulnerability is not weakness, what is it? Brené Brown describes vulnerability as “having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”1 In fact, it’s letting go of the need to control the outcome. It’s a willingness to engage directly with the people in your institution and the people that your institution serves, both those who agree and those who disagree, and to see what you might do together. Vulnerability is a willingness to try ideas out, and a readiness to acknowledge when your ideas are wrong. Vulnerability is an admission that you are human, that your knowledge is partial, and that you need the input and advice and support of the people around you in order to make the best decisions you can.

In this, you might begin to get a sense of why vulnerability’s apparent opposite — invulnerability — is not merely impossible but also undesirable. Invulnerability isn’t strength. True leaders aren’t armor-plated, not least because that armor prevents them from interacting with their environment, from sensing change, from connecting. Strength in leadership in fact requires vulnerability: removing the armor, engaging with difficulties, with changes in the environment, and even with criticism. Only through such willingness to be vulnerable — to have the courage to show up unarmored — can you model real engagement and connection and remain open to moving in a better direction.

This is never more true than during times of crisis. When the community you lead is frightened or hurting, it’s crucial to be with them not just rhetorically but in action, to acknowledge and reveal not just their fear and pain but your own as well. This is risky: if you haven’t earned the trust of your community, it’s easy for public expressions like this to sound like a calculated, empty form of faux empathy, of the “I feel your pain” variety. And this leads us back to the question that started part of this project: How can you enact generosity in hard times? In no small part the answer is by having built the foundations of generosity before times get hard, by having established the generous principles and practices that build trust and then relying on those principles and practices to help get you through.

If you have that trust, you can build upon it by sharing your own concerns with your community. But if you haven’t yet built that trust? Acknowledging that, admitting mistakes, and expressing your genuine desire to repair the breach can begin the process.

The key here is recognizing where the concerns of your community in the midst of crisis are concerns you genuinely share, and where they are concerns that you need to understand, where those concerns are about you and your willingness and ability to work through the crisis with them rather than at their expense. When your community is looking to you for solutions, it’s vitally important to share not just what you do know but what you don’t, what you need their help with, where pockets of uncertainty make clear answers difficult. And it’s especially important to remain in open communication — and that this communication not become a one-way transmission of announcements and updates, but an opportunity for dialogue.

I’ve had experiences with leaders who are good at this kind of openness, and I’ve had experiences with leaders who are disastrous at it. Far too many of us will recognize the description of the university president who effectively builds walls around the office, using an inner circle of advisors to keep others away. Directives and pronouncements emerge, but crucial information that the president needs to know may never make it to them. Worse, they may receive that information without being required to acknowledge or act upon it. Worst of all, the distinction between those two circumstances — between engineered ignorance and willful ignoring — is invisible to the community, which is left to deal with the consequences alone.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with some phenomenal leaders, and I hope that you have as well, leaders who can provide models for the kinds of openness and vulnerability we should all work toward. For the last several years I’ve worked directly with a dean who, in the midst of an unimaginably painful crisis of conscience for our institution, spoke openly and frankly enough with the college that we were able to see his emotional response and understand that he was genuinely in the same turmoil we were — and that he would work with us to forge a new path.

This same dean has brought transparency to a whole series of the processes of his office, including budgeting, developing more collaborative discussions and ways of working among the chairs and directors and other leaders who report to him. In the usual budgeting process, for instance, chairs make requests of the dean for new lines and other forms of strategic investment, and those requests disappear into a black box of sorts, with a result emerging that may or may not come with much in the way of explanation. Our dean instead asked all of the chairs and directors to share their requests with the entire group, enabling everyone to better understand the needs that exist across the college, but also providing opportunities for units to collaborate with one another in thinking about how to fulfill those needs. The entire group then discussed the college’s values and priorities and rated the requests based on them. It was a messy process, and at times an uncomfortable one, as many of us found it hard to rank the needs of our colleagues when all are so pressing.

In many ways, however, that discomfort was the point, as it allowed all of us to understand viscerally the kinds of difficult choices that always have to be made in processes such as these. In the end, the decision-making moment remained with the dean, but allowing those who lead the units within the college to see and genuinely advise on the process leading to those decisions has produced both deeper recognition of the complexity of the choices that have to be made and deeper trust in the reasoning behind the decisions.

Most importantly, that process began during a relatively good year, budget-wise, when there were strategic investments to be made. We are now in the thick of a disastrous year, as is so much of higher education in 2020. And the dean has convened a group of task forces to advise him, in much the same manner, on ways to make the cuts that are required while maintaining the college’s values. Those task forces, like so much else in organizational life, will wind up being advisory rather than authoritative, but one key to getting the unit leaders’ investment in the extremely painful work we’re doing has been that the dean continues to show up. We have all summer had a weekly call — not a memo, not a webinar — in which the dean lets us know what he knows, lets us know what he doesn’t know, and does his best to answer any questions that we may have. His willingness to acknowledge when he doesn’t know how to answer a question, and his determination to keep showing up for the dialogue, have been crucial to maintaining the trust that he’d built in better times.

There are risks involved in opening up your decision-making processes, in inviting participation, in remaining open to ongoing communication. And there are certainly risks involved in allowing those you work with to see your own uncertainty, your frustration, your anxiety. But not doing so presents guaranteed problems: invulnerability breeds communication failures and active distrust. Acknowledging and revealing your vulnerability can be painful, but it creates the possibility for real trust and communication to grow.

One word of caution, however: few things are more infuriating than the performance of vulnerability. Wearing your worries on your sleeve can wind up looking like a transparent attempt to fend off criticism through an appeal to sympathy. Genuine vulnerability is not about display, but rather about being wholly present in a difficult situation, opening up real communication, and inviting participation in thinking through solutions. It also requires follow-through: keeping the lines of communication open once decisions have been made, ensuring that the reasoning that went into the decisions is in line with the values that your community upholds. Not everyone will agree with those decisions, but your willingness to show up, to accept criticism, to hear new ideas, can help maintain trust in difficult times.

  1. Brown, Dare to Lead, 36.

10 thoughts on “LG5: Vulnerability

  1. Kathleen,

    I am puzzling over the geometry suggested by vulnerability as a lowering of barriers as opposed to the openness and capaciousness that your example of expanded involvement suggests. Is there a way to get there without starting out from the adversarial positioning that “vulnerability” suggests? Could this way of leading be characterized as a readiness to listen? I know you have written about listening before vulnerability. But maybe it is worth stressing that “readiness to listen” informs “listening” to emphasize the point. There you begin “It seems that deep listening calls for emotional and intellectual openness” and the keyword “openness” might bear repeating. There is an alertness in the readiness to listen that is far from being vulnerable — it’s an attentiveness to opportunity (and not mere opportunism) … the raptor’s keen eye, the prey’s sharp hearing — an ecology that recasts “vulnerability” to a time-sensitive attribute : ) F.

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