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Living through the Vulnerability to Get to Courage

I was recently skimming a piece on NPR titled, “10 pieces of well-worn life advice you may need to hear right now.“ Full disclosure, I was really hoping that I would find a brilliant piece of advice that I’d never heard that would immediately resonate with me and change my life for the better. This list, however, contains a rather generic compilation of general advice, none of which is brand new, all of which is good to keep in mind. Things like “It’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’” and “It’s not all about you” with a wildcard of “Do smaller loads of laundry” thrown in there.

And then there was the piece of advice shared by Tania Israel, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara: “Being vulnerable means taking off the armor.” She goes on to explain, “ I was talking with my therapist about how I didn't mind being vulnerable as long as I knew the other person would be warm, that they wouldn't judge and all of that. And she said, ‘That's not vulnerable. Being vulnerable means taking off our armor and going in not knowing how we'll be received, but putting ourselves out there a little bit anyway.’”

Those of you who have been following my journey over the last seven months know that I’ve done a full dive into all things Brene Brown, including reading and highlighting all of her books. And vulnerability is a core theme of Brene’s work.

In her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong (and, really, all of her books), Brown discusses that through her research on shame, a deep connection between vulnerability and courage emerged: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

Brown argues that there is no courage without vulnerability. It’s just not possible (and if you don’t believe Brown, feel free to reflect on your own life and try to come up with a single situation where you showed courage and not vulnerability – I couldn’t find one). In order to be courageous, we must first be vulnerable.

As leaders, we must be vulnerable because, as Brown states, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Trying something new is scary, and it’s the only way we get better. Rethinking our middle school schedule and curriculum to better meet student needs is vulnerable. Delving deeply into outcomes and indicators and evaluation tools to better understand if we’re successfully meeting our goals and how people perceive the work we are doing is vulnerable. Launching a new program that is just the right mix of crazy and inspired is vulnerable.

Because we might fail. And we won’t know how we’ll be received. And we just don’t know what will happen.

And we might accomplish something amazing (because we can fail and do accomplish something amazing at the same time). We might inspire learning in a new way. We might make a connection that wasn’t there before. We might find a new way of doing something that forces us to rethink all of our previous conceptions.

So while Israel’s advice was certainly not something new for me, it was an important reminder. Being vulnerable doesn’t come easily for all of us, certainly not for me. I know that I often wear any number of different forms of armor – foreboding joy and perfectionism are two big ones for me – but true courage only comes when I shed this armor and lean into the vulnerability.

How, then, can we make vulnerability just a little bit “easier” for those of us who are new to the area (and/or still a bit scared to put ourselves out there?).

Do your homework

Read. Talk to people. Beta test. Before delving head first into being courageous and vulnerable, test the waters. Pitch your new idea to a focus group. Read about others who have done something similar. Call a mentor or three and run your crazy plan past them. Try a small-scale test of your big idea before totally overhauling everything. It all becomes data, and the more data you have the better prepared you are and the less scary being vulnerable seems. Just don’t let the “collecting data” phase be the reason you never take the launch into full vulnerability. At some point, you need to take the leap.

Be transparent and honest with your communication

You may be surrounded by the most amazing people in the world – and they aren’t mind readers. So make sure to talk to the people on your team about what you’re doing and why and what support you need and how they can help. Explain to the people impacted by whatever you’re doing how you’re hoping this will benefit them. Recognize that not everyone will be on board, and that’s okay, and make a plan ahead of time for how you’ll process any constructive (or outright mean) feedback you receive. Over communicate during this process, but be careful about how vulnerable you are with different parties during this communication.

Live into your values and your “why”

I recently posted about the importance of definition and articulating your values, what we believe and hold to be most important and taking care that those values show up in our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviors. While being vulnerable can be (and is) just a little bit scary no matter what, when we are living into our values, we can’t really go wrong. Those values act as a compass or guide, ensuring that we stay the course. If we are living into our values with our vulnerability and staying true to our why, we will be pushed forward into the courage more securely. Because we’ll believe at our core that we are doing the right thing.

I love working with people in this space between and among and through vulnerability and courage because they are doing something new and exciting. Most of my clients come to me because they have an idea or a challenge they want to overcome. They aren’t quite sure what it looks like or how to make it happen, but the idea is there. They know that they won’t be happy if they just leave things as they are. They know something better is out there. And making a change is really exciting and scary. So we come up with a process that includes just the right amount of vulnerability, mixed in with data and structure. It still involves putting yourself out there. It definitely does not guarantee success. It promises times of discomfort.

But where there is true courage, vulnerability is a guarantee. And that’s where the real innovation, creativity, and change begins.

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