Even typing the word vulnerable puts me into a quiet, soft mood—not normally the way most people would describe me. In a world where we are taught that harm lurks around every corner and we need to watch our backs, the last thing we want is to be vulnerable. Yet, what kind of world have we created when each of us is constantly on guard, wary of the next assault?
Webster’s defines vulnerability as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded,” or “open to attack or damage.” Who in the world wants that? In searching further for deeper meanings for vulnerability I scrolled down to synonyms and found a few that seemed closer to what I had been looking for: exposed, open, sensitive. Again, not the hallmarks of an effective leader and perhaps they offer an insight that has been missing in our leaders and ourselves.
Everyone I have ever coached, taught or spoken to can quiet themselves down enough to feel their “real self.” Some resist allowing themselves to connect with this part of themselves, while others are so relieved that someone finally gave them “permission” to get in touch with it again. One way I support clients in doing this is to go back to their five-year-old self . . . that time in life when they knew who they were, before the world started to “tell” them how they needed to be. Free, creative, open, trusting, happy, vital, loving, the list goes on and on as people describe the vibrant youngster they used to be. That is until we were told, or experienced, how that joyful being was vulnerable . . . and we began to learn to defend against attacks and keep our real self hidden safely away.
The trick with vulnerability is that our young self makes a critical mistake we end up paying for the rest of our lives. As the first attacks come, we believe we must hide our real self under a façade of toughness, determination, perseverance, mastery, whatever we can do to show people that we are competent human beings capable of making our way in the world. The mistake we make in reaction to feeling vulnerable is to cover up who we really are instead of opening up to our talents and gifts—and confidentially walking with them in the world. The mistake comes because we falsely believe that what other people are telling us is true, because if they are dismissive or attacking there must be something wrong with me, instead of understanding that when others behave that way toward you it is because they are feeling so badly about dismissing who they truly are that they can’t allow you to walk in power, so they lash out to bring you down as well. A tough lessons at such an early age and an almost universal experience that impacts all of us.
If we are to become the leaders we are capable of being and to live the life of happiness we all long to create, the path does not require us to put on more “stuff,” it requires us to take it all off. Degrees, clothes, networks, titles, whatever it is that becomes necessity to our self-image makes us more vulnerable, because all these externalities can be taken away in a moment. Fully revealing who we are, opening ourself up to others and being vulnerable—not to attack, rather to being exposed for who we really are brings more power and freedom than we can imagine. If we own who we are without all the external stuff, then we have become the master of our world because what matters most to us can never be taken away. (And we will discover that we are not alone in our “vulnerabilities” as they are shared by everyone.)
What I am suggesting is not easy in today’s world. All around us we feel threats—economic, professional, personal. We have been living in a world for centuries where we have allowed the power and masks to prevail and what we have created isn’t a place most of us want to be. If we consider shifting what we value about ourselves and others, allowing each of us to be real, open and sensitive, perhaps the result will move us closer to ideal we wish to create.