VULNERABILITY IN LEADERSHIP
By Dr. Ronda Barron
Writing an online article for the first time, one to be published for all to read, to interpret and to perhaps criticize is a daunting task, a task that has left me feeling vulnerable. Being an academic this may sound preposterous but there is a key difference, the context, the situation has changed. But what exactly is vulnerability, why do so many of us avoid placing ourselves in a position we perceive to be vulnerable or avoid even discussing our feelings of vulnerability. Each person reading this will already have a personal (subjective) held belief of what vulnerability is, for some of you it is weakness, perhaps uncertainty, and for some may even indicate risk. On the other hand, vulnerability may be believed to be a positive attribute, even a strength, as it may be a means to become more open, acknowledge our failures, establish trust, and build flexibility to change, resilience (Bligh & Ito, 2015; Brown, 2006, 2015; Bunker, 1997; Fletcher, 1994; Grant, 1988; Lexa, 2012). But the sharing of our challenges, our vulnerabilities are often at the heart of social connection (Brown, 2015), and as social beings we create and develop this connectiveness through our stories, often through resonance, feelings of inclusion, building trust (Taylor, Fisher, & Dufresne, 2002).
Conversely, when telling stories we also conceal, or edit our own personal stories to show ourselves in a light that portray the version of me we want others to see, this of course is depending on several factors, who we are taking to, the environment we are in, and the relationships we have established, these variations are often referred to as situational effects (Hankin & Abramson, 2001). Bunker (1997) discusses how leaders may attempt to match their expected roles and associated behaviours that are deemed appropriate but that these are often coupled with personal emotions and fears. Leaders also suffer and hesitancy to, or the development of coping mechanism that do not embrace being vulnerable can have devastating consequences. When the concept of Power in leadership is considered Greene (2010) discusses Law 18 – Do not build fortresses to protect yourself – isolation is dangerous. As human beings who are social creatures, we actively seek connectiveness and without opportunities for social interaction and circulation we can retreat to a fortress of isolation, the ultimate danger is one may begin to feel doubt, uncertainty, threatened, vulnerable. Greene carefully weaves his own story and integration using examples such as Shin Huang Ti and Louis XIV, he puts his emphasises on being at the heart of social circles, of avoiding the aloof perception of isolation. But, Greene also discusses that isolation does not always have damning effects, in small amounts engagement with isolation can be a positive exercise, one that allows us to slow down our brains, and do the one thing that consistent human contact does not allow, think.
Similarly, to Greene’s (2010) approach, Warwick (2016) proposes that the use of fiction can be used to engage with processes of uncertainty, doubt and paradox. In his paper he layers his own narrative experience of a distressing meeting he once had, sharing with the reader his own leadership development through the lens of Homer, Shakespeare and Allen Poe. But one clear message Warwick provides, is that of leadership development; it takes practice, time for reflection, and our own communication development. Wisdom passed down traditionally came through the art of storytelling, a tradition which has begun to be transformed into the digital age (Hausknecht, Vanchu-Orosco, & Kaufman, 2019). But stories are not just sources of information about an individual or an organisation, they are ongoing, changing and developing conversations happening at an individual and institutional level (Bjoe, 1991b) At an organisational level Rhodes (1997) outlines that an organisations true success or failure may not in fact be dependent on what really happened (actual events) but in the stories that are told of these events. Leadership attributes are plentiful (vulnerability being one of many) but living and truly embracing leadership attributes into our everyday and work lives is not as simple as it may first appear. Because experiencing and becoming comfortable being vulnerable requires practice…storytelling is just one way, one I have chosen to practice being vulnerable. Writing this piece has been both daunting with the uncertainty of how it may be received, but yet I also feel open to the change, the learning that I may take from this, accepting those changes and perhaps failures and implementing them in my leadership journey. Do you have a way to practice being vulnerable, do you tell stories too?