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Why the Best Leaders Are Vulnerable
 

Even though people think vulnerability is weakness, in reality, it's the courage to show up and be seen.

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Vulnerability does not sound like the sort of topic that would get a bunch of entrepreneurs cheering. But that’s exactly what happened when Brene Brown addressed Inc.’s Leadership Forum on Tuesday.

In her talk, Brown, an author and researcher, took popular conceptions of vulnerability and upended them. She said that even though people commonly equate vulnerability with weakness, in reality, it means something else entirely: the courage to show up and be seen.

“Vulnerability is the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity,” says Brown. “There can be zero innovation without vulnerability.”

Here are what Brown called the four myths of vulnerability, and how entrepreneurs-- or anyone-- can combat them.

Myth 1: Vulnerability is weakness.

In her research, Brown asked thousands of people to talk about times they felt vulnerable. Their answers: Starting my business; the first date after my divorce; taking my company public; owning something I’ve done wrong at work; cheering my son on because he really wants to make first chair in the orchestra and knowing that’s never going to happen.

None of these, Brown realized, had anything to do with weakness. “Vulnerability is not weakness at all,” said Brown. It is, in fact, our most accurate measure of courage

"I cannot find a single incident of courage that is not completely underpinned by vulnerability …  Think about the last time you saw someone do something that was brave, and I guarantee you vulnerability will be there,” she added.

But, she said, if courage is a value that is important to you, you have to be willing to give up comfort, because the two cannot co-exist. Additionally: “If you are going to live your life in the arena, you are going to get your ass kicked.” Because “entrepreneurial endeavors are courageous and risky and hold up a very uncomfortable mirror to people who have chosen comfort."

Myth 2: You can opt out of vulnerability.

Often, after her talks, Brown said an audience member would approach her and say something like, “That’s a nice talk. I enjoyed it. I don’t actually do vulnerability but it was interesting.”

Vulnerability, said Brown, is the combination of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. “To be an entrepreneur is to be vulnerable every day. You don’t get to opt out of it," said Brown. “If you don’t believe that you 'do' vulnerability, vulnerability is doing you, and probably wreaking havoc in your life.”

Refusal to “do” vulnerability, to deal with uncertainty, means you’ll take the deal that doesn’t have the money you want, doesn’t have the terms you want--doesn’t have anything you want--but you’d rather take it than grapple with uncertainty.

Myth 3: Vulnerability means letting it all hang out.

“Live tweeting your bikini wax is not vulnerability,” says Brown. Instead, vulnerability without boundaries is attention-seeking and it’s desperate.

What matters is one’s motivation in sharing: to get attention or to solve a problem?

In addition, you share you stories only with people who have earned the right to hear them. “You don’t stand in front of people who work for you and say, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing and it’s all going to hell.’” You do need to share it with someone, and Brown said every successful leader she’s spoken to has a small group of people to whom they can say, “I’m in over my head.” But it’s a small group.

Myth 4: I can go it alone.

“We make heroic this notion of being able to do things by ourselves,” said Brown. She said she can go into an organization and tell, in an hour, how willing the people there are willing to be vulnerable. Part of it is in the language they use. Do they say things like “Can you help me with this?” “Thank you,” and “Are you willing to give this a shot?”

 “Vulnerability is terrifying and feels dangerous,” said Brown. “It is not as scary, terrifying, and dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and asking what would have happened if I’d shown up? What if?”

IMAGE: Chris Guillebeau/Flickr
Last updated: Jun 11, 2013

KIMBERLY WEISUL is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.
@weisul




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