Don’t Blame Brené Brown For The Vulnerability Craze

by Jul 25, 2019Leadership

The word vulnerability is used and bandied about in a manner that assumes it is a universal good. It isn’t.

When a leader is vulnerable in a way that is honest and appropriate, it is powerful and often constructive but, when vulnerability is not mediated by boundaries it is neither appropriate nor constructive. 

Brené Brown, professor at the University of Houston, and author of best-selling books based on her research and experience, speaks eloquently about vulnerability and why it is important. As articulate as she is, her work on vulnerability is often over-simplified to the point of distortion. Advice to “be more vulnerable” is given as a blanket prescription, even though Brown offers no such advice. Indeed, she says, “Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability” (Dare to Lead) and she is right.

The graphic below, from High-Stakes Leadership: Leading Through Crisis With Courage, Judgment, and Fortitude, 2017, offers a description of how vulnerability and boundaries intersect.

vulnerability chart

Most find it easy to place people they know in a quadrant and are confident they are correct. The more important question is about yourself, not so you can correctly place yourself in a box, but to support good decisions about what to do and how. The following questions will help.

What is it that I want to happen?

A leader who is considering disclosing something personal, to his boss or her board, for example, may choose to do so to help the organization make plans if they cannot continue in their role in an effective manner. Illness is a prime example. If a leader chooses to speak about their illness, they will be vulnerable to other’s interpretations. Even so, it might be the right thing to do.

Merely asking the question can help to thwart behavior that feeds an individual need but at a cost to others. 

Great leaders know that the greatest power at their disposal is their own behavior. Click To Tweet

Am I seeking conversation or an audience?

Leaders have power and when they are talking, most others are obligated to listen. Colleagues aren’t your therapist. Instead, sharing concerns or worries when a person is able to ask for and receive honest feedback is helpful. Doing so strengthens relationships and provides a model for others to ask for advice and help.

Am I looking for approval?

Am I sharing an idea, wrapped in a long preamble about my insecurities to thwart criticism? Do I make it difficult for others to offer honest critique because I appear to have beaten myself down already?

The job of leaders is as much self-management as other-management, probably more so. It is especially important with regard to emotion because it provides the fuel for behavior, sometimes without conscious awareness. Leaders who pay attention to their own emotions and stop themselves from reflexive action give themselves, and others, the gift of acting with the courage, judgment and fortitude that is necessary for good leadership.