Vulnerability Does Not Equal Weakness

I work with many clients who had to be tough to succeed. Whether they’ve had to overcome challenging life circumstances to get where they are or they grew up in a “normal” household, many people I coach did not become successful by being average!

As they moved up the ranks from acceptance into the top schools to being the best in the class, applying for the choicest internships, selected for elite training programs and climbing up their career ladders, the behaviors they learned early on to survive were not only reinforced but heavily rewarded, financially or otherwise.

They’ve also had to put on a mask many times, hiding their real feelings, not speaking up when they don’t know the answer. And sometimes, berating others instead of admitting their own failings. The higher they rise, the more the gap grows between who they really are inside and who the world experiences on the outside.

The bigger the gap, the bigger the fear — of being found out, being seen as a fraud, not living up to other’s expectations.

They become exhausted, worn down, and have an extra drink (or two) when they get home at night. And they can sometimes lash out at others.

And then one day, usually during a life-changing performance review or 360º feedback session, they realize that all that competitive, independent, survival-of-the-fittest stuff is actually preventing them from achieving the next rung on the ladder. It’s a tough moment when they come to understand that their behavior is impeding their success; that they may not be fully listening to and collaborating with others, let alone supporting and mentoring them to succeed, which are becoming necessary leadership skills.

In our Personal Mastery training, one of the main premises is that by taking off the mask of success and achievement, by being human with those around them, leaders can actually be more powerful and effective. Most of our clients go along with that concept until about day 6 of the 9-day Personal Mastery training, at which point they realize there is a tradeoff that needs to happen, or at least that’s how it seems in their mind.

In order to succeed, I now have to be vulnerable? Share my weaknesses? Talk about what I don’t know? Ask for help? This is the moment where they hit the wall. This fear, that being vulnerable means being weak, and being weak means failure, and failure means, well, NOT succeeding. Not an option. So they struggle, the ego battles with this concept for a day or two until the second realization hits them: “I am not happy like this.”

When they realize that the cost of being competitive and independent is taking its toll, not only at work, but often in their personal lives as well, not to mention to their own sense of well-being and satisfaction, the bargaining comes to an end.

Curiosity steps in. They begin to wonder — what if? What if I didn’t have to be the smartest person in the room? What if I could ask for help instead of working at home, after dinner, to do it all myself? What if I could let my guard down and allow people to see the real me? They seem almost giddy at the thought of being that free!

And this is where the true self-discovery process begins: When my clients realize that vulnerability is NOT a weakness, that it is actually a super-power. And that when they stop working so hard to protect their perceived weaknesses and instead focus on what they want to learn and experience, how they can help others succeed, life gets a lot more interesting. And you can just see it in their eyes, the relief of years of struggle: The battle to be the best, to win is over, and they are ready to take back their own life, leading from a more vulnerable, yet powerful, place.

  1. Jon Davis says:

    Love this piece. It is so true. Hope you are well!

  2. Allen Kilgore says:

    Great stuff – speaks to a lot of us on how we behave. I have found the power of being vunerable, but it is a constant struggle. Just saying “i don’t know” in a room of your peers can be extremely difficult. So waht is wrong with saying “I don;t know but I will find out”. Again, a great article to remind me by overcomming the “I dont know” fear I will live longer and be happier.

  3. Denise says:

    You’re preaching to the choir…so glad you’re helping people make these transformations.

  4. Laura, I don’t lead anyone (other than myself, at home) but your wise words apply to everyone in every situation. When we’re honest with ourselves, willing to “see” (and change, if need be) — well, I don’t think there’s a Kryptonite equivalent that could touch the super power of vulnerability! Thanks for this.

  5. Wise words indeed, Laura. And phrase I love most? “What if I could ask for help instead of working at home, after dinner, to do it all myself?” When we REALLY get that asking for help is both liberating and nourishing to self and others, we move mountains.

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