The Strength of Vulnerability

Women are having a moment. From the economics of equality dominating the news to pop culture icons making a statement about the need for gender balance, females have never been stronger, louder or more in control. From business to Beyonce, girl power is #trending. But in a twist, the strength that’s so focal, important and powerful in women and leaders today comes from softness — more specifically, it comes from vulnerability.

“A new breed of leader is emerging; one who achieves high performance results by also being selfless, vulnerable, collaborative and humble,” opens John Gerzema. The Girls’ Lounge has enlisted the best-selling author, social scientist and thought leader to help us unpackage the slippery subject of vulnerability. “These leaders are thriving in an era of fierce competition by bringing the best of what both men and women offer into their leadership style. And their success challenges the old-fashioned, rigid, winner-takes-all mentality of getting things done.”

John is no stranger to exploring characteristics and their influence on leadership, and thanks to his book The Athena Doctrine, the subjects of masculine and feminine traits have become common dialogue within workplace dynamics. “The Athena Doctrine research shows that 74% of people agree that power today is about influence rather than control,” John tells us, summarizing the thesis and data of the book, which surveyed 64,000 individuals in 13 countries to conclude that traditionally feminine leadership and values are now more popular than the macho paradigm of the past. “While ‘banks and tanks’ have defined a traditional type of power, people today are looking for something more.”

On the spectrum of masculine-feminine qualities, vulnerability falls deeply onto the traditionally female side, removed from even similar qualities like kindness, empathy and patience. The reason for the divide is that vulnerability, unlike its cohorts, requires more strength of its bearer. It requires sharing something that makes them weak. “While ascending the corporate ladder typically requires aggressiveness and competitiveness, leading from the top takes a different skill set,” explains John of the paradox of vulnerability being a necessity for strong leadership. “Our research shows that what people describe as traditional feminine skills and competencies are requisite for sustainable success in the modern era. In our global survey, we found that 79% of people are more open to showing their feelings than in prior generations, while 81% agree that today’s times require we be more kind and empathetic to others. Acceptance of vulnerability is increasing around the world, and will hopefully proliferate the workplace, to increase understanding and flexibility for women who are transition points in their lives.”

source: John Gerzema, The Athena Doctrine and Best Countries.

Despite these overwhelming statistics about the importance of vulnerability, execution is often more complicated than theory. A lot has been said recently of the so-called ‘messy middle’ of the professional pipeline where women fall off in middle management. Women start in a near-equal 45% of entry level employees, which reduces to 32% of senior management and 23% of senior vice presidents. By the time women reach the C-Suite portion of the professional funnel, they make up a paltry 17%. More troubling than these numbers are those that define the so-called “ambition gap” that acts as a catalyst to the decline of high-ranking women in the workplace: a survey by Bain shows that 43% of women at the entry level are aiming for the C-Suite, but that number declines to 16% of women after 2–5 years working. Part of what is lacking, among the other, more explored and discussed areas of wage gap, employee development and work-life balance, is support, which is irrefutably linked to — you guessed it — vulnerability.

Vulnerability is the polar opposite of the less than savory truths that many women face in the workplace. Competition that has been bred into women in certain industries or in certain corporate cultures has had them reaching for the same and highly limited piece of the pie. Shortages of time and overages of stress have limited opportunities and encouragement for mentorship, and, at its worst, bullying has grown as a response to showing authority by showing another woman’s weakness.The Girls’ Lounge was founded on the antithesis of these concepts, but just because we’ve built a company on collaboration and the positives of women working together doesn’t mean that these truths can be ignored. At everyone’s best, a company builds a culture of care that supports everyone in its workplace. At it’s worst, coworkers, especially women in the context of this article, can be their own worst enemies.

John agrees, adding “In fact, 84% of people worldwide agree that a successful career today requires collaborating and sharing credit with others. Without being open to the vulnerability of sharing both failure and success with others, it is difficult to succeed in the twenty-first century. Without vulnerability, one cannot truly connect to others on a human level. Admitting weakness is an aspect of building teams and communities that are open, honest and transparent.”

“Our research suggests that ambition and soft leadership qualities, like patience and vulnerability are not diametrically opposed,” John continues, considering how vulnerability differs from weakness while it exposes it. “[These qualities] are seen as virtues of a strategic and effective leader. And, therefore, they are a sign of strength and striving, not shame. Our research uncovered a global referendum on command-and-control leadership and rash, unilateral decision-making. So while it may seem counterintuitive that exercising patience and vulnerability will result in high performance, it can actually be viewed as beneficial to yielding deliberate business decisions.”

The research behind The Athena Doctrine exposed John and his co-author Michael D’Antonio to a number of examples of feminine leadership, none more fitting on the subject of vulnerability that Silvia Loli’s story. The Director of Women’s House in Peru is a shining example of the strength of vulnerability. “In Peru’s capital city of Lima, the issues facing women are often placed on the backburner. The police often dismiss or shelve cases of women being raped or subjected to domestic abuse,” John begins. “Instead of falling victim to the situation, Silvia took actions to correct it by creating a women’s police unit to pursue such crimes and petitioned to have women included in the police force. After a slow start, she was able to force reforms that allowed women into the police department and forced lawmakers to approve legislation making domestic violence a serious offense. Through Women’s House, she operates counseling programs and legal aid clinics that are available to everyone. They also back start ups and provide job training. Through these services, Silvia supports meaningful solutions generated from the group up by people who need to see immediate improvements in their lives.”

Silvia’s example proves the point of the quality of vulnerability being not a necessary female leadership quality, but a necessary human quality. “This applies to individuals as well as to companies,” nods John, connecting the dots of the importance of human nature in the workplace. “Today, what a company does is more important than what it says. Therefore, having a sense of mission and exercising values-based leadership speaks for itself — and is the most powerful form of self-promotion for individuals and marketing for companies.”

So how can we, as women, as humans, and as participants in the larger wholes of our companies, see the benefits of vulnerability? “My advice would be to practice what you preach and to bring your authentic self to work, vulnerabilities and all,” John volunteers. “In light of drastic changes in technology and information that are dramatically changing the way business gets done in virtually every sector of the economies, stasis and routine are no longer an option. Great leaders must be agile and adapt in unprecedented ways and at warp speed. Therefore, mastering smart risk-taking and motivating those around you to be constantly looking for ways to innovate and iterate on best practices and new ideas is of tantamount importance.”

In this way, vulnerability is irrefutably paramount to forging connections, building trust and removing barriers to collaboration. As the female leaders of today, it’s on us to explore and apply this and other ways to show strength in our daily lives and daily work, even if it’s through channels that feel more modern than traditional. As John concludes at the end of our interview; “In the age of increased transparency, exercising openness is of the utmost importance.”


Written with ❤ by the Girls at The Girls Lounge.

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