Vulnerability may be the most precious word in leadership today. After decades of the emotionless, command-and-control model, we now want to bring our whole selves to the table (working from home has sped up this process). But leadership vulnerability pioneer Brené Brown says that we may be mistaking vulnerability for blurry boundaries.
Here's what she told fellow social scientist Adam Grant:
Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability. Are you sharing your emotions, your experiences, to move work, connection, a relationship forward, or are you working your s**t out with somebody? And work is not the place to do that.
Her books, including the newest, Dare to Lead, are pretty much blueprints for vulnerable leadership, so the warning comes from a good source. Here are my two big takeaways.
Interrogate your intention around sharing
Why are you sharing your deepest, darkest secret with your employee? Or crying on the team-building Zoom call? And explaining all your insecurities to your VCs?
Sure, these sound like poor decisions on the outset, but the bigger question Is, What result are you trying to achieve?
In my private coaching practice, I have cried with clients and shared my own tough situations. I consciously allowed these moments to happen to give sympathy -- "I'm sorry it's a difficult time for you. I see your pain" -- or empathy -- "Man, I've been on a similar path. It's tough, isn't it?" And in seeing them as human, we can then work together to heal from this moment.
Just blurting out stuff because you're feeling rough today isn't vulnerability. To paraphrase Brown, save that stuff for your therapist, your spouse, or your personal brain trust. Conscious vulnerability is doing so to help another person feel seen, and then both of you are elevated. It's not treating others like an emotional waste site.
Question whom we are sharing with
We often conflate wanting to share something heavy on our hearts with needing to share it right now with the people we happen to have around. Those are the moments when we have a breakdown in the middle of an important meeting, say something too personal during an investment call, or make an inappropriate joke alluding to something intimate that others, frankly, don't want to know about you.
It is the suppressed emotion coming out to play.
One way to avoid this urge is to practice self-vulnerability: Allowing yourself to acknowledge your own turbulent, sensitive emotions. If you aren't acknowledging your own feelings, then how are you going to fully support vulnerability from the people you lead?
It is also smart to practice vulnerability regularly with a trusted group. Again, I meet often with a brain trust who allow me to practice vulnerability as well as make room for their vulnerability. A coach, a therapist, or another relationship can help, but I've found that peer relationships are even more effective, as it isn't you looking up to someone, but being reminded that what you are experiencing isn't extraordinary.
It is just part of being human.