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Stand your sacred ground

With feet firmly planted on your vulnerability

By Kathleen Quinn Votaw

If you don’t know Brene Brown, you’ll find her on TED Talks, YouTube, and her website. She’s brilliant, inspirational and funny. Her message is still resonating in my mind after hearing her speak at the Inc. 5000 conference in Phoenix last October—and I feel compelled to pass on some of her wisdom as we begin 2015.

Brene Brown is known for her research on vulnerability, a characteristic that many of us don’t think much about in our work environments. As it turns out, being vulnerable is one of the crucial traits of effective leaders, who are unfortunately often more known for their egos than their self-disclosure. At its essence, vulnerability is the courage to be authentic and to have the hard conversations that most of us try to avoid, whether at work or at home. Brene says to “stand your sacred ground” and “lean into the discomfort of the work” by being vulnerable. I hope that by paraphrasing some of her thoughts I can show why this is important and a worthwhile trait, especially for leaders to explore.

What vulnerable looks like

According to Brene’s extensive research, people who have the courage to be vulnerable have a number of traits in common. First, they have a strong sense of love and belonging, and a belief that they are worthy of love and belonging, which enables them to connect with others. The opposite is true of people who are unwilling or unable to be vulnerable. Other attributes are having:

  • The courage to be imperfect
  • The compassion to be kind to yourself before you can be kind to others
  • Connection that results from the willingness to be who you are
  • A necessary, but uncomfortable, embrace of vulnerability
  • The willingness to say “I love you” first

We live in a vulnerable world

Why do we struggle with vulnerability, especially at work? How many leaders do you know who would describe themselves as “vulnerable”? And yet vulnerability is the core of creativity, confidence and joy, according to Brene—and something that should be welcomed into every workplace culture. Instead of embracing it, leaders try to numb vulnerability by:

  • Making uncertainty certain: “I’m right, you’re wrong—now shut up”
  • Trying to make things perfect
  • Pretending that what we do or say doesn’t have an effect on people (think layoffs and recalls)

As a leader, you have a choice. You can hide your vulnerability and create a culture of fear and uncertainty. Or, you can be a model of vulnerability through:

  • Openness
  • A willingness to risk failure
  • Owning it so you can fix it
  • Having the hard conversations
  • Giving and accepting feedback
  • Saying you’re sorry
  • Being kind and gentle to yourself and others
  • Practicing gratitude

Since many of us have built up protective armor that keeps us from revealing how vulnerable we are every day, practicing these traits can require some personal courage. After a while, they’ll come naturally, and you’ll feel a freedom, and even joy, that you haven’t ever experienced at work—guaranteed.

Brene began her keynote at the Inc. 5000 conference with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23rd, 1910. It gave me chills, and I’d like to leave you with it.

“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 errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; 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.”

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