The Fatal Flaw of the Invulnerable Leader

“We are learning that the praise we get from others, our desire to get ‘lost’ in our frantic behavior, our sick sense of needing to avoid and accomplish goals, are all processes we use to escape the reality that we cannot completely control our life or our experience.” — The Workaholics Book of Recovery

Every time I run an open space there are a few “surprise hit” session. Sure, it’s always popular to learn a new performance technique, but there are “soft” subjects, too — discussions on topics that don’t normally get addressed.

One of them in Los Angeles recently was on “Vulnerability From the Top.” The person wanted to discuss the idea of being in leadership or control positions and still making peace with vulnerability.

Even proposing the class was an exercise in vulnerability; he really thought it would just be him, alone in the classroom, maybe writing down some thoughts. Instead it was standing-room-only with people opening up — not only about their own vulnerability and fear but also what it was like to see it in their leaders.

The range of ideas could easily fill a book, but one aspect in particular was recurring: the feeling leaders had that acknowledging their fallibility or weakness or lack of control would make them unfit for their position. It basically translated into a need to be perfect as well as omniscient, not only understanding exactly what happened in the past and what’s happening in the present but also what was going to happen in the future.

That’s a lot of pressure. And the problem is, we put it on ourselves.

The Invulnerable Flaw

I could go into a whole bunch of reasoning why we are more than the sum of our accomplishments, the inherent worth of humans and how compassion is the proper response to vulnerability. But since the theme of this blog is “Practical ideas for making hard times happier”, let’s instead talk pragmatically. Let’s put it into terms of power and control.

One of the key tools leadership-types talk about is “situational awareness”. It’s kind of like that omniscient thing I wrote about above, but with smaller scope. You know what the players are on the field, you know their strengths, their capabilities, and very importantly, you know their weaknesses. One of the biggest blind spots, though, is forgetting that you, as the leader, are also a player on the field, with all the same characteristics — including weaknesses.

Unless, of course, you deny you have any weaknesses, or refuse to examine them, in which case you have just increased their number by one: all the vulnerabilities you had before, plus the deliberate ignorance of your own fallibility.

This can be a huge problem, because it means that you are not prepared for the eventuality of being tired, of overlooking something, of being distracted. It means that when one of your weaknesses manifests itself, it will take you by surprise, and instead of having a plan to deal with it, you’ll scramble and improvise.

It also weakens you further because, by not acknowledging your humanity, you are unable to create environments that guard against your weaknesses. When warriors go into battle, they don’t pretend their skin is invulnerable (unless they are Conan or Red Sonja, I suppose). Instead they armor up, acknowledging and protecting their vulnerability against the attacks.

Scary Vulnerable You

Here’s the part that’s hard: you may not be a leader. You may not think of yourself as a warrior, or anyone who needs to worry about control.

Even if that’s true, you still are in charge of one person: yourself.

Taking stock of your vulnerabilities at first can seem like a really not-fun exercise. That’s because we too often equate it with self-criticism, combining the natural vulnerabilities with “should” — basically the equivalent of a knight looking in the mirror, saying “You really should have harder skin! What’s wrong with you?

See how silly that is? The minute you find yourself slipping into blame — You’re just no good with money, are you? If you worked out more, your back wouldn’t hurt… and the like — stop, and remind yourself of two things:

  • Everyone and every thing has vulnerabilities. There’s just a question of whether they are known or unknown.
  • By taking the time to make you own vulnerabilities known, you are strengthening your ability to respond to them — so every new “flaw” you find makes you stronger.

You can do this on whatever level you like, throughout your life:

  • What are my psychological/spiritual weak points?
  • Where can my relationships be stronger?
  • How am I physically vulnerable?
  • Where are my financial risks?
  • How secure is my living environment?
  • In an emergency, how would my neighborhood respond?
  • What are the blind spots of the culture I live in?

Now, I’ll be fair; that’s a lot of work. It doesn’t have to be all done at once, and it doesn’t have to be done right now. It’s not like these vulnerabilities suddenly appeared; they’ve been there, in one form or another, your entire life.

I’m just suggesting that getting to know them, and learning to live with them — perhaps even, in an anti-fragile way, leveraging them into things that help you thrive — is a worthwhile use of your time.

What’s your flaw?