Embracing the Vulnerability of Leadership

092817_PoppiesBy Elaine Jones, Market Intelligence lead at Microsoft and Friend of Simple Intentions

Since I was little I’ve never really found a way to accept praise well. Every time someone gives me a compliment or expresses praise or admiration the resulting swelling of emotion is not one of pride and happiness but of awkwardness and discomfort. This particular feeling is so ubiquitous there is a name for it – the fear of being the “tall poppy.”

Brené Brown recently addressed this in a speech she gave while talking about her new book, “Braving the Wilderness.” This fear is born out of a basic human need for belonging and connection. It drives us to communicate and work together, but also hurls us into loneliness and that fear of sticking out when we are singled out for praise, admiration or leadership. Through her interviews with students about fitting in and belonging, Brené described the experience of compromising oneself to pursue a false sense of belonging: “You start to engineer smallness in order to fit in.” She told stories of kids with sport all-stars for parents who just wanted to play video games all day, of employees staying silent about a critical business flaw to avoid the risk of public shaming. They were tales of a paradox between being true to oneself and the risk and vulnerability of loneliness.

Brené defined vulnerability as “being uncertain, taking risk and having emotional exposure.” As the audience laughed to her stories, my mind flashed back to a day in high school when one of my best friends said to me, “You know you’re not fooling anybody by pretending to be stupid. Why don’t you just get over yourself and help out with this science problem?” In that moment it struck me: every moment of praise, every promotion, every request for leadership was an opportunity to lean into the vulnerability that makes me not only stronger, but closer to my true self. And I had missed almost every one of them.

I am certain that I am not alone. I work with several incredibly passionate, talented and intelligent individuals, and often see that downward glance when I commend a job well done, a sudden shyness when I praise great behavior, I hear the ubiquitous question, “But what can I do better?” In the past, I’ve often brushed aside the tension that arose, focused on my intent to earnestly send a positive message and expected a “logical” outcome of delight instead of discomfort. Brené speaks to leaders when she acknowledges that we were raised to be brave but not courageous. We reward the greatness in others, yet concurrently ignore the vulnerability of leadership that comes with that greatness.

Yet, there are so many ways to embrace the vulnerability of leadership, to lean into that space and to invoke a genuine connection with others.

  • By acknowledging the vulnerability of putting the work out there, “Thank you for seeing this idea through when the team decided to look elsewhere”
  • By extending praise, “Thank you for the great feedback, what can I do to help others benefit from this?”
  • By celebrating the unique talents that every member brings to the team and refusing to encourage emulation of another’s success, or associating any single working or leadership style as a model for success
  • By standing with team members who “brave the wilderness,” speak out and take a stand on what they feel is right, and modeling that same courage, taking that same risk ourselves
  • By giving feedback on the work, positive or negative, without references to personhood

The human need for connection is real. The fear of being the “tall poppy,” the shame of being different is real. But I am so encouraged that it is not necessarily accompanied by loneliness. Paradoxically, leaning into the fear liberates me from it, embracing the vulnerability evokes support and security from others, my team and community. The choice is mine to stand alone, or instead, lead with a band of like-minded souls with whom I share a connection, each of us blazing a path uniquely our own, following our wild hearts. In reflection, I would have it no other way.

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