For the last few years I’ve been thinking about the relationship between conscious leadership and vulnerability. Specifically asking, “Are conscious leaders more vulnerable than less conscious leaders?” What I’m seeing is that conscious leaders are more self aware, open and honest, but less vulnerable.
For the first 20 years of my adult life I spoke weekly to several thousand people about matters of faith, life, love, meaning, purpose and relationship. As a minister I believed that part of my value to the people I led was to be vulnerable; to be human and real. So I was.
When talking about marriage I would talk about the struggles that my wife and I were having. At times I detailed the content of a conflict we had had that week. When speaking about family I talked about the confusion and uncertainty, the messiness and chaos that came along with being a parent, or the results for me of being raised in a family with alcoholism and abuse. When speaking about God I revealed my crises of faith, my anger at unanswered prayers and my failure to be more loving, joyful and peaceful. I used to look over a talk before I gave it and ask, “Where is my vulnerability?” Being vulnerable mattered.
Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Her research shows that these acts of courage lead to greater connection, empathy and love. My experience was that when I was vulnerable I, indeed, experienced greater connection, empathy and love both inside of myself and coming toward me from others.
I also found that in my practice of vulnerability I was selectively vulnerable. Even though there was much that I revealed, there were things I held back. I was unwilling to fully risk, become totally emotionally exposed or risk stepping fully into uncertainty. My story was that the community I was part of had certain third rails and to touch one of those was to be truly vulnerable and exposed, to take a huge risk.
I loved saying the word fuck as much as the word faith, or that I got so rageful at my young wife that I once grabbed her by the neck and pinned her against a car window in a fit of both physical and emotional abuse, or that when traveling out of town to speak at other gatherings I’d watch porn in my motel room, and in order not to be found out I figured out how to jimmy the movie box so the hotel bill wouldn’t reflect my night’s activity. I didn’t tell them that for several years I had slept on the couch and had given up on the marriage. I didn’t reveal to them that I often resented them, really resented them, for wanting from me and needing me and clinging to me, or that I LOVED standing in front of thousands of people and having them hang on my every word, and that the adrenaline rush I got from that experience was one of the few things that blunted the ache of depression in the center of my chest. I didn’t tell them that I believed our church, which at that time was one of the largest in the United States, was really all about bigness and fame, power and privilege — not about mercy, justice and compassion—and that that judgment was certainly true about me, if not us.
One of the several reasons I left my job as a minister was that not being fully vulnerable was becoming too much. I felt like a hypocrite. If you’ve ever felt like a hypocrite, you know that it is a painful, soul stultifying experience. I could have harmonized my hypocrisy by being even more courageous, risk taking and vulnerable, but I was too afraid to be that real, to risk everything, so I chose instead to leave my career and what I thought was my calling. I chose to shrink my life’s circle of influence to what it would be if I hid nothing and revealed everything. I got more interested in being authentic than being influential or impactful. I prioritized being free over being good, or pretending to be good.
The climax of the quest for authenticity or, as it is referred to in The Hero’s Journey, “the descent to the ashes,” occurred when a local Chicago paper published a front page article saying that the church I had ministered at several years earlier was disavowing me and what I was doing. This article came out just as I was ending my marriage and moving out of my home and into my office where I lived for several months because I couldn’t afford anything else. Now I was vulnerable and I felt truly vulnerable. I had gone from being a respected person in the community to persona non grata with much of the world who had once embraced me.
At that moment in time I must admit that, although I was fully revealed and as vulnerable as I could be, I did not feel love, connectivity and creativity. I felt alone. I felt shame, the deep disturbing sense that I was a bad person. Not only had I done bad things, I was fundamentally flawed.
It was at this low point that I started to learn what I now observe in conscious leaders:
What was happening was that I was seeing myself more accurately, especially the darker parts that had lived in the shadows. I was seeing more clearly my motivations and manipulations, the deeper reasons why I did what I did. This growing self awareness was both frightening and liberating. As I was also increasingly more honest and open, I was experiencing the cost of hiding and the power of telling the truth.
And as I faced and revealed more and more I felt less and less vulnerable. A paradox for sure. Dr. Brown says that vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. In my experience the key word is risk. When I am vulnerable, I am risking. But risking what?
My sense is that what we’re risking when we’re vulnerable is losing approval, control and security….three of the core wants and needs of being human. If I tell you the truth about who I am, what I feel and what I want, really want, I’ll risk losing …..
This is why vulnerability is so scary, because I lose all certainty about what will happen; I risk what matters most to me and experience exposure at a primal level. This is what Dr. Brown is pointing at, and this was at times my experience, but something else was happening.
Slowly, oh so slowly, and very unsteadily, I was discovering experientially that I was OK, really OK. What this points to is that there is an experience of approval, control and security that is not dependent on what others say or do. Another way of saying this is that there is less risk, less uncertainty and less exposure all the time...
To be very clear, it has not gone away completely. Vulnerability still shows up often. Like last month when I was in the hospital thinking I might die. I felt so vulnerable. Or when I go to the edge of being truthful with my wife Debbie and feel the contraction in my belly (FEAR) that I won’t be wanted, that she might look at me in a disapproving way or cut off her love. Humanity is still here. AND, more and more, as I face, feel and reveal and I don’t have a sense that there is a risk. Living this way is becoming more normal. I have a deep sense of approval, control and security on the inside. It is becoming more imperturbable all the time. And I feel less vulnerable. More open, less vulnerable.
And I’m not alone. I live in communities of leaders who are more and more self aware and radically honest. As Dr. Brown says, they experience more connection with others and themselves, more love and more creativity and innovation, but at times they experience criticism, rejection and become the object of other people’s gossip. They lose relationships and things.
And they are OK, really OK, because they can rest in the experience of having enough approval, control and security. Because they have it and know it experientially it no longer feels like a risk that they will lose it. In the midst of all of the uncertainty of life they have a growing certainty and trust in a love that enfolds them.
So what my experience and that of others is offering is that everything Dr. Brown says about vulnerability is true. And it might be a step along the path of a leader’s journey, but there are steps beyond. As leaders keep doing the deep inner work of learning to rest moment to moment in a love that is not outsourced to others, they become more and more aware, open, and honest, yet less vulnerable.