A few years ago, I heard Brené Brown speak at a conference. It was the first time I had heard anyone speak professionally about the power of vulnerability as a business strategy—this was well before it became the center of many leadership conversations—and it immediately landed on me in a powerful way.
Showing up as you are is a really difficult thing to do, especially when early in life we operate with high dependence to those with more experience. If we are lucky, we are blessed with good role models, even then, it’s impossible to pass through childhood without an experience that makes you feel less than. At all stages of life we are prone to mistakes, embarrassments, all learning opportunities of course. So whether external feedback or our own internal feedback loop, we learn to moderate ourselves. We are quiet when we so desperately want to chat with our friends. We raise our hands and eagerly wait to be called on. We learn early on that to operate in a group successfully, we must often subdue our natural spirit.
As we get older, it doesn’t get much easier. Early in our careers, more often than not, we embrace a “wait your turn” mentality as we wait for promotions and permission to take a step up the hierarchical ladder. We seek approval. We fall in line. We do what is asked of us and curb our own enthusiasm and passion. Many times, we develop two personas: “work me” and “home me.”
The work ahead of us today is to undo some of that training, to find and trust our voice, to believe we are enough, that we deserve. Whether that is equal pay or equal opportunity, or both.
As Brené so masterfully advocates, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” Vulnerability is about being brave enough to show up authentically as you are in that moment, while still respecting and valuing others as they do the same.
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As a leader of people and a builder of culture, I am constantly thinking about the role vulnerability plays in business, particularly when you consider the macro forces at play that are demanding our highest level of innovation, creation and disruption. Pressure mounts daily for organizations to strategize how they will accelerate to next, embrace a culture that supports continuous transformation, level-up their people and invest in their talents, introduce game-changing technology solutions, and rethink their competitive differentiation.
Addressing these challenges becomes exceedingly more challenging when our people don’t show up fully. Vulnerability is our pathway to innovation. Vulnerability is the foundation upon which our teams and companies can soar to new heights.
At the end of the day, a business is an accumulation of human beings—not a singular entity. To me, vulnerability is about focusing on the individual versus the collective and shining a flashlight on each person’s unique value. It’s about people beaming not dimming. It’s about organizations demonstrating that they trust and care about their people so that their team can trust and care about the business, too.
When we allow our teams to show up as their authentic, full selves—and when we create space for them to shine—we lay the groundwork for innovation to thrive. We cannot thrive in a culture that is continuously seeking approval; we must create a culture that fulfills that need at the individual level so that we show up as collaborators instead.
To create space for our teams to show up as themselves, I would encourage you to think of the following:
- Evaluate your talent organization and ask, “Do I have the right people to shift my organization to vulnerability?” The choice to be vulnerable has to be a choice that is made at every single level of the organization. Authenticity begets authenticity. As such, it is imperative that we have the right team in place to successfully shift to vulnerability.
- Ensure that your executive team believes innovation is key to your success. Your executive team needs to love the word “vulnerability.” If they don’t, you have blockers. Companies that succeed at embracing vulnerability have systems in place that support innovation at every single level.
- Once you have your executive team bought-in on the shift towards vulnerability, bring in your next layer of managers. Fold each and every team member into this new ideology, and model the way of what vulnerability looks and feels like within your four walls. Once they absorb it, they become your implementers and influencers.
To accelerate to our next stage of growth, our teams need to feel safe so that they can ideate freely, challenge the status quo and lead us to something better. Embracing a culture that promotes vulnerability, authenticity and courage directly opens the doors to innovation and incredible change.
And pretty soon, your culture of vulnerability takes on a life of its own, breathing continuous fresh air into your people and your business.