The Power of Vulnerability

As an advocate for the underserved in her community, Gloria is recognized as a true leader. She’s smart, resourceful and has a commanding presence. She is unafraid to challenge injustice wherever she sees it, standing up to any person or process that she feels is harming others. Because of her courage, others have come to rely on her to take the difficult stands that they themselves are afraid to take. Tough and courageous, Gloria is a shining example of the grit-based leadership style at its best.

And yet…

Gloria was starting to experience the limitations of her style. When she was forceful, the world often responded to her with force, which took its toll on her. The more others relied on her courage, the more she enabled them to avoid their own. After years of experiencing the gifts of grit, Gloria started to experience the perils of over investing that style.  She came to me for coaching, and we worked to help her integrate more grace into her native grit style.

Now, it is often when she calls upon her ‘grace’ side that Gloria is most powerful as a leader. I recently observed her in a community forum, where the discussion was heating up, yet going nowhere. I could see people giving her ‘the look,’ their silent visual request for her to challenge what was happening. And, as she so often does, she stepped up. But this time, her challenge came in the form of vulnerability. Rather than calling people out, Gloria just stood up and quietly told her own truth. “As the conversation is going on,” she said, “I am finding myself more and more exhausted.” In that instant of speaking from the heart, Gloria changed the room. Simply by describing her own personal experience, she seemed to give voice to that of the whole group, and people visibly relaxed in recognition.  Soon thereafter, someone spoke up and said, “That’s how I feel, too. I don’t think this is getting us where we want to go. Let’s change the focus and the structure of the conversation.” From that moment on, the group adjusted into a much more productive mode.

For Gloria, it was a much greater risk to be vulnerable than to challenge others; it was a much more personal move. And yet, from where I sat, it was the most potent and effective action she could have taken. Had she stood up and done her normal ‘grit thing,’ she probably would have just amped up the unproductive intensity in the room. But by honestly reporting on her own internal experience, she caused a profoundly effective shift.

When we think about leadership, we tend to think about its more assertive and forceful aspects. But vulnerability has every bit as much power as force to transform. Maybe more.

What about you?

How do you related to the concept of vulnerability as a form of power?  Do you embrace it?  Resist it?  Both?
How do you think others relate to your vulnerability?  What impact does that have on your willingness to make yourself vulnerable to others – especially when you are leading or influencing others?
Can you think of a recent or important situation in which being forceful worked against your effectiveness?
What might a more vulnerable response have looked like in that situation?
Where might you want to be more vulnerable in your work life or personal life?  What steps can you take to do that?


4 replies
  1. Reggie Marra
    Reggie Marra says:

    I love this post, Leslie. As someone who has been moderately conscious since 1995 of my Enneagram 8 energy, I can relate to Gloria’s story and to the “move to vulnerability.” In the context in which you quote Gloria, the word “exhausted” is perfect. What you describe as “grit” often manifested for me as confrontation through unskillful means–which felt occasionally victorious and always exhausting.

    What I’m able to see for myself some 17 years into working on, with and through this, is that nowadays the choices I make around grit and grace are as much (perhaps more) about state as they are about type. I am waaaaay more likely to show up in my vulnerability when I’m in a more-or-less healthy and resourceful state than I am when I’m unhealthy and unresourceful.

    I also realize that knowing I have the choice to lean more toward grit or more towards grace in a given circumstance allows me to do either in a more balanced, skillful and conscious manner–resulting in a more graceful grit and gritty grace.

    In response to your first question, above, I both embrace and resist vulnerability depending upon circumstances, who’s in the room, and how consciously aware I am of myself in the moment. And I still have the ability to go unconscious–in which case vulnerability effectively ceases to be an option. I hope to eliminate this possibility in the next 17 years.

    Thanks for addressing this here.

  2. leslie.williams
    leslie.williams says:

    Reggie, thanks for your great and thoughtful response to this post as you look at it through AQAL. I’ve noticed that integrating the masculine and feminine tends to be quite a different ‘walk’ for people of different Enneagram types. And AMEN to the role that states play in supporting or inhibiting our ability to access the full spectrum of masculine (grit) and feminine (grace).

    My own development in this area has given me the ability (albeit occasional) to bring grit and grace forward in the same moment: both energies blended and woven together in one interaction. It’s like it creates a third way of being. As you say, grittily graceful or gracefully gritty. I have been astonished at the power of that integration and delighted at what it makes possible in all quadrants.

    It’s cool that you’ve been bringing such consciousness to your own vulnerability. I have no doubt that subject-level embodiment will ultimately occur for you. Then your access to grace will rely less on consciousness and will arise more from your bones. Keep me posted! By the way, do you know the work of Brene Brown? She’s a researcher on shame and vulnerability and her stuff is great. Done some great TED talks that you can find on YouTube.

    Thank you for bringing this inquiry to a deeper level, Reggie. You rock (and flow).

  3. Reggie Marra
    Reggie Marra says:

    Hi (again), Leslie. Thanks for your repsonse to my response (we may be headed for an infinite response loop). Re Brene Brown, yes, I’m familiar with her TED talks–just forwarded them to my stepson this week. You probably already know this: Soundstrue and Omega are sponsoring a free 90 minute live Brene Brown video on April 21, 2:30-4:00 ET, from the Women and Happiness Conference:

    P.S. While I’m “here,” and re your January 21 “Modeling ourselves after men continues not to work” post brought Audre Lorde’s work to mind. Are you familiar with her? I love her and her writing for many reasons, but your post particulary evoked her essay/talk from 1979, entitled “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

  4. leslie.williams
    leslie.williams says:

    Reggie, you rock (still and again). Thank you for all your cool resources. I’ll sign up for the Anatomy of Joy event, which is perfect because I am engaging in James Baraz’ online Awakening Joy course, which is a 10-month course on joy based in Buddhism. I am not familiar with Audre Lorde and will check her out apace. Thanks so much!

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