Harnessing the Power of Vulnerability

Many HR leaders — along with leaders of every stripe — tend to view vulnerability as a weakness, and strive to “engineer it out” of their organizations. This is a mistake, according to author, consultant and University of Houston research professor Brené Brown, who delivered a keynote address at the Indeed Interactive conference in Austin, Tex. today on “Vulnerability and Workplace Transformation.”

Far from being a weakness, vulnerability can be a source of strength, power and innovation if people understand how to use it properly, said Brown, who’s spent the past 13 years of her career studying vulnerability, shame, courage and worthiness. Leaders who have an honest understanding of their own vulnerability, and who are comfortable displaying it during critical moments, are better equipped to lead and inspire other employees, she said.

Brown, whose TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability in 2010 became the fifth most-viewed TED Talk ever, cited her own experience in the wake of the talk’s popularity as instructive. Although it garnered more than 25 million views, the video also attracted some nasty comments from online viewers denigrating Brown’s appearance.  The anonymous comments included suggestions that Brown get Botox injections for her wrinkles and “If I looked like that, I’d feel vulnerable, too.”

Feeling traumatized, Brown compensated by “binge-watching Downton Abbey and eating lots of peanut butter.” But while watching the iconic British drama, she researched who was U.S. president at the time, and came across a speech excerpt by Teddy Roosevelt that inspired her:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;  …  who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

Roosevelt’s words not only helped Brown put the comments in perspective, but inspired the title of her 2012 book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.

“If you’re not in the arena, being brave and getting your ass kicked, then I have no interest in your feedback,” she said. “The world is filled with cheap seats, with people who hide behind anonymous comments and never get in the arena.”

Feeling vulnerable often leads people to try and compensate in ways that aren’t always helpful and, in some cases, damaging. She cited a brief disagreement with her husband that could’ve turned ugly had she not applied her own lessons in being aware of and mastering one’s vulnerability.

“Emotions drive our responses to tough things,” said Brown. “We tell ourselves stories about things that are happening and we get a reward from our brain that makes us feel better, even if the story isn’t accurate.”

However, vulnerability is not only the source of shame, fear and anxiety but also of love, belonging and joy, she said. It’s also the source of courage, empathy, trust, innovation, creativity, accountability and adoptability.

“If you foster a culture in your organization that doesn’t allow for vulnerability, then do not expect people to take risks and innovate,” said Brown. “If you don’t understand vulnerability, you cannot manage and lead people.”

Of course, leaders can’t display vulnerability in every situation, she said, citing the CEO of a start-up who told her he’d decided to share his vulnerability by going public with his feelings of being in over his head and having no idea what he was doing. “People who invested money in your company obviously aren’t going to want to hear that,” said Brown. “But if people sense that you’ll reach out for help when you need it, rather than not saying anything and continuing to plug along, that’s OK.”

The ability to be honest about what you don’t know or are uncertain of is a strength, not a weakness, said Brown.

“To be alive is to be vulnerable,” she said. “To be a leader is to be vulnerable every moment of every day.”