The Complicated Relationship Between Vulnerability and Leadership
In our era of vulnerable leadership, when is it time to set boundaries to protect ourselves and the people we lead?
I spend my days performing my vulnerability.
I often stand in front of 100 people I don’t know and tell them one of the most personal stories I have to offer, whether it’s about trauma or gender or failures in leadership or even just my complex relationship to art. I dedicate time, energy, and attention to crafting these stories for specific audiences, changing them based on who I know will be in the room.
I take this approach because I believe in the power of storytelling, especially when it comes to changing minds. After all, my consulting firm — Ethos — is focused on the intersection of company culture and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and we are always working on how to convince the companies we serve to do both company culture and DEI differently.
My approach is not just about the storytelling, though. They are vulnerable, personal stories for a reason.
I believe vulnerability can bring us much closer together, and storytelling can be a channel or vessel for getting to that vulnerability.
However, the idea of vulnerability is complicated, and as popular as it’s become in leadership, especially in the wake of Brené Brown’s exceptional work, I don’t know that we always understand what it is exactly.
Healthy Vulnerability and Unhealthy Vulnerability
Vulnerability means showing up as you are, unprotected.
Imagine an armored knight. The knight rides into battle surrounded by other knights holding spears. With his armor on, he has more of a guarantee that even if he is speared, he will survive.
If he walks into that battle without armor, there is a much higher likelihood he will end up speared, hurt and killed.
But what if he’s not in a real battle? That armor makes it so no one can really see him, reach out and touch him, or connect with him on a deeper level.
I’ve lived so much of my life without armor, choosing to believe I’m not in battle. Another way to say this is that I want connection more than I want safety.
That’s how I’ve come to understand there is a difference between healthy vulnerability and unhealthy vulnerability. Why and how you want connection, especially when you’re leading others, really matters.
Healthy vulnerability is about wanting to see and be seen. The emphasis is on showing up as you, which allows you to help others do the same. It requires courage in the face of social rejection, fortitude when others turn away. The reward is knowing you leaned in, as well as sometimes watching others follow in your example.
Unhealthy vulnerability is about seeking. You show up without your armor because you’re calling out for validation, approval, affirmation, and love. You strip away too much of your protective covering in the hopes that someone else will cover you. And all the while, you don’t have the tools — coping mechanisms, sense of security, self-awareness, or psychological safety — to recover if no one does.
Making yourself vulnerable to get to a level of greater understanding of yourself, others, and the world is valuable. After all, as a leader, it’s your job to set vision, plan for the future, and build relationships, with the hope of growing something greater than yourself. How can you do that without understanding?
But making yourself vulnerable so that you can fill a need or void is another story.
There’s a scene in the cyberpunk film Alita: Battle Angel where the eponymous cyborg breaks into her crush’s room, splits open her chest, and pulls her heart out to give to him. She explains her heart is worth so much money that he can take it from her, sell it, and buy his way into a better life.
He warns her against giving herself up this way, against trusting people so much. With her oversized eyes shining, she expresses confusion, along the lines of, “But why? I love you.”
There are few cinematic moments that have resonated with me as deeply. Every time I have been asked by someone to put my guard up, especially as a leader, I have responded with some version of, “But why? I love you.”
And I do really love them. I think being a leader often requires you to love people you wouldn’t otherwise. You have to take care of people to lead them, and the act of care-taking leads to love. It’s why folks aren’t shocked to see hospice nurses at funerals or childhood nannies at college graduations. When you are responsible for others, feelings of closeness, affinity, and love naturally develop.
But lately, it’s gone too far for me, and I’ve felt like the edible woman.
Specifically, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Edible Woman follows Marian, who increasingly loses the ability to eat as she enters into a repressive and depleting romantic commitment. She finally bakes a cake shaped like a woman and dares her partner to eat it; the whole point is that he’s been eating away at her this whole time until she’s lost herself.
I’ve thought of this moment lately in training and consulting engagements where I’ve found myself trying to lead and serve at the same time, while also balancing the responsibilities of running all of my company’s practice areas, making sales, and managing my teams. I feel like I’m giving too much of myself up for the wrong reasons. I’m being vulnerable in order to get a guarantee of reciprocity, to keep people in this story or work or performance with me.
The problem is that we’re human, and the two different kinds of vulnerability can manifest in us at the same time. Right now, of my 37 coaching clients, at least half would probably say this is their situation today. I think it’s fair to say it’s often mine, too.
Knowing When to Set Boundaries
So, what do we do?
The answer here for me, and for any leader who is responsible for others, is to set boundaries.
This doesn’t mean boxing yourself off from others, but instead creating opportunities to separate your thoughts and feelings from them.
There should be a clear line between where I end and you begin. If there isn’t, the relationship is at risk of getting to a state of unhealthy vulnerability.
There are places where I think I’ve gotten this right. I have a rule about never asking my employees, mentees, or anyone I am directly responsible for to do emotional work for me.
As much as I share personal stories, my personal life is often strictly off limits. If there’s not a lesson to be learned, a point to be illustrated, a way to be of service with that moment of vulnerability, it’s probably not getting shared.
A quick way to check for this is by reflecting on a question from Brené Brown:
“Am I resentful because I’m not setting or holding a boundary?”
If the answer is yes, ask yourself what an appropriate boundary would be. What would allow for you to keep a sense of a separate self, as opposed to being enmeshed with the other person?
For leaders, I tend to see one particular impulse trip them up when it comes to boundaries: the desire to save.
Remember, it’s very hard to do the work of leadership without caring about people, and when we care about them, we want to protect them, support them, unlock their genius, and more. As times get tough and boundaries get blurred, we want to save our team members from the mistakes we’ve made or the feelings we’ve had.
This can result in projection and transference that doesn’t actually account for the real experiences of the people we’re trying to save!
Even if it doesn’t, it’s actually not our responsibility to save them.
The truth is, we can’t change the people we lead, not directly. We can only help them change themselves.
And sometimes… they won’t do it.
Logically, we all know this will happen, but emotionally, we resist. For some of us, that might mean striving and striving until we feel taken apart, eaten up.
But if we remember to set boundaries, we all end up happier and more well-adjusted. Those who work for us (or who we work for) don’t feel like we’re searching for something in them, and we don’t feel like we’ve given up more than we have.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers on vulnerability. Especially when it comes to boundaries, I am learning every day which ones I need to instill and which ones aren’t necessary.
I’m theatrical and performative, and my job actually requires theater and performance. I’ve always been taught to leave it all up on stage. I push to the absolute extremes of vulnerability because I want my gold star, as well as to be persuasive, engaging, and yes, connected.
Here’s what I’m trying now, with all of this in mind.
I pay attention to when the vulnerability hurts more than it helps, whether it’s me or others, and I change my story. I ask who I am leading and what they need in order to get to our vision, and I determine how much of me will get them there.