In this new year, I’ve been thinking about vulnerability as a strength. About the vital role it plays in emotional intelligence and good leadership.
My Grandma passed away just before Christmas from COVID. She meant a great deal to me and may have had the single most impact on who I became as a person. I spent many hours at her home when I was young. We read Dr. Seuss books. We sang Burl Ives songs together and worked on puzzles. She bought me mini loaf pans and taught me to make bread. From her, I learned how to plant, harvest, and put up food.
Grandma was strong, smart, tenacious, kind, diligent, committed, thoughtful, and deeply caring. She was also afraid to be vulnerable much of her life. She could be hard, unbending. She always needed to be in control to feel safe. She taught me these things, too.
My grandma’s health was poor for the last years of her life and she developed anxiety and depression. The last time I saw her in person, not long before the start of the pandemic, she was having a panic attack. During our time together I talked her through exercises to use when feeling anxiety. She was a good student, practicing each step and taking notes even though she was struggling. It was one of the first times she was willing to be truly vulnerable with me; willing to let me help and teach her. That last visit was a gift, and it changed our relationship for the better.
Even as I embraced the softer space of our relationship, and I began prioritizing more time and attention for her and mailing a handwritten note every couple of weeks, I also began to see that I’d learned some unhealthy behaviors from Grandma along with all the good stuff. And, I saw how I could have been a better spouse, friend, teammate, and leader without those harder-edged behaviors.
I acknowledged how afraid I had been to be vulnerable, especially at work. My career has been intense, working in nonprofits alongside trauma, privilege, constant resource constraints, and instability. It’s no surprise I tried to protect myself. Actively trying to change and drop some of my internal barriers has been a game-changer for me and my colleagues.
In this time when the environment shifts constantly, using the practices of vulnerability are critical for leaders. The leaders I’m talking with (whether they have positional power or relational power) are bone tired. They don’t know what the answers are because there is no playbook for two years of a pandemic, and labor shortages, and supply change wackiness, and climate change disasters, and new donor trends, and…
And it’s been an eye-opener for me that one of the answers turns out to be practicing vulnerability. Taking that overwhelming weight and shifting to share it, to invite in support and, dare I say it in the work setting, love. Building connection amongst your team so everyone is strong and resilient.
Dr. Brené Brown (researcher and storyteller) seeded the mainstream conversation about vulnerability in a 2010 TED Talk. I invite you to check out her work and try ten of the practices that have helped me. Overall, I challenge you to cultivate, in Brené’s words, “The courage to be imperfect.”
- Cultivate a good support system and self-care outside of work. Fuel yourself first so that you might support others. See this as part of your on-going professional development, as much of a commitment as taking a workshop to grow and learn.
- Bring more of your whole self to work. Being authentic makes us vulnerable, and being vulnerable builds connection. You can be professional and admit you love rom-coms. Or share about something hard that happened to you before work.
- Share your values, dreams, and intentions as a leader. Let your team peek under the hood of the car to understand how you work and why.
- Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers and there may not be a perfect path forward. Share your humanity. Be brave enough not to be perfect. Trust that when you don’t have a perfect answer, it encourages others to be innovative.
- Be curious and self-aware. Request feedback from colleagues, regularly schedule time to assess yourself and your work, spend time on reflection. Allow yourself to learn.
- Ask for input and spend time listening. Whether or not you think you have the answers, give your colleagues the opportunity to have the answers.
- Create safe spaces to talk about risk and expect a certain amount of failure. If your organization isn’t failing, you’re probably not innovating.
- Explicitly admit when you’re wrong or make mistakes. Model a safe way for your colleagues to practice vulnerability.
- Recognize others when they practice vulnerability in a healthy way. In addition to encouraging good emotional intelligence in your colleagues by modeling it, also lift up and celebrate examples of it.
- Invite team members to take on some of your leadership activities. Sometimes we lead from the front and sometimes we lead from the back. Our job as a leader is to help others succeed, not to be the only relevant team member.
Vulnerability makes one available to others and builds trust. It leads to authentic, strong relationships. It strengthens connection and resilience.
I hope you’re finding moments of beauty, wonder, love, and joy amidst the challenges of these times. My deep wish is for all of us is to see ourselves as worthy. To do that, we must be vulnerable.
Having worked continuously in the nonprofit sector for 26 years, Jennie Arbogash believes she was born to engage incredible people and organizations in creating a just world together. For a long time, she did this by working and volunteering with direct service nonprofits. Then, as the CEO of Social Venture Partners Boulder County, she found a new way to impact communities. There she got to create partnerships, consult, train, and facilitate volunteers to help nonprofits use effective business practices so their participants could thrive. Desiring to return to a deeper connection with direct service nonprofits, after twelve years it was time for her to start her own consulting business – Jennie Arbogash Consulting. Now she works with scores of leaders on strategy and planning, board development, organizational development, executive search, leadership development, facilitation, and advising.