The Motive for Vulnerability

If you search the terms, “vul­ner­a­ble lead­er­ship” or “vul­ner­a­ble leader,” you will find some good arti­cles, such as those here, here, and here. Clear­ly, they explain, there is a dis­tinc­tion between a weak leader and a vul­ner­a­ble one, a per­son who runs away from mis­takes and inse­cu­ri­ties, and one who is flex­i­ble, can learn, and is able to apologize. 

Not long ago I pro­duced a paper on defen­sive­ness. I strug­gled some with the title because the term defen­sive seemed to have no oppo­sites. If I chose today, “vul­ner­a­ble” def­i­nite­ly would be it. Here’s the way I am think­ing about it:


We can think of the moments when we are most hijacked by our emo­tions, when we feel most under attack and there­fore most vul­ner­a­ble, as crit­i­cal choice points — either we defend or we respond. When we are most defen­sive, we may not like to think of our­selves as choos­ing at all. Our need to react can feel very much auto­mat­ic, a prod­uct of a hijacked amyg­dala. Respond­ing is the prod­uct of a more con­scious inter­ven­tion in our own defen­sive sys­tem, and can involve some of the steps list­ed in the dia­gram above, includ­ing slow­ing down, reflect­ing rather than blam­ing, detach­ing from what is being threat­ened in us, sur­ren­der­ing to the sit­u­a­tion, learn­ing from it, and com­ing out the oth­er side with a renewed sense of affir­ma­tion — for self, oth­ers, some­times even life itself.

The ques­tion I ask is why any­one would choose to respond rather than sim­ply defend? After­all, respond­ing typ­i­cal­ly involves a much deep­er per­son­al jour­ney and often some pain, some­times a gen­uine rein­ven­tion of self after expe­ri­enc­ing some very hard emotions.

Alex Todd makes a very plau­si­ble con­nec­tion between vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and trust with his notion that “Trust is a per­son­’s will­ing­ness to accept (and/or increase) their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty by rely­ing on implic­it or explic­it infor­ma­tion.” (See this arti­cle by Alex regard­ing online trust for this def­i­n­i­tion and its con­text.) While I may not be using the con­nec­tions between vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and trust in exact­ly the same way Alex would, what I like in this def­i­n­i­tion is the idea of “will­ing­ness.” Will­ing­ness means we make a choice, and that we can do so know­ing that we are vul­ner­a­ble. We can even make a choice to increase our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, and I would say that is absolute­ly the essence of turn­ing from defen­sive to respon­sive behaviors. 

I think of one of my favorite lead­er­ship sto­ries, one I’ve told before of a CEO, a friend of mine, who was giv­en some tough infor­ma­tion about his con­duct. One of his reports pulled him aside to tell him that some­thing he’d said at a meet­ing could have sound­ed racist. The mes­sen­ger was an African Amer­i­can man­ag­er who report­ed to him. The CEO, instead of defend­ing his remarks, claim­ing his good inten­tions or oth­er­wise explain­ing away this awk­ward moment, invit­ed more infor­ma­tion, and with the man­ager’s per­mis­sion lat­er high­light­ed his mes­sen­ger behav­ior at an all staff meet­ing for the com­pa­ny. The CEO said to every­one that he regard­ed the man­ag­er as a “hero of the com­pa­ny,” who through his acts exem­pli­fied exact­ly the kind of “speak­ing up” cul­ture the CEO want­ed to fos­ter. Then the CEO went on to encour­age any­one else with feed­back about his behav­ior to share it with him pri­vate­ly. A num­ber of peo­ple came for­ward lat­er to do so — and he learned a great deal. 

What is it, I am ask­ing, that enabled the CEO to respond rather than defend? Why would he “go there,” risk­ing his own self-con­cept? He chose to be vul­ner­a­ble, and to increase his vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. He chose to rely on the noto­ri­ous­ly sub­jec­tive per­cep­tions and expe­ri­ences of the peo­ple with whom he worked, risk­ing his own sense of self-esteem. Did he do this from neces­si­ty? Did he do this as a reflec­tion of his own self-con­fi­dence? I will ask my friend one day, and get his answer, but I sus­pect that it might not help you or I to know. The ques­tion is why we might do the same in any sit­u­a­tion where we are inclined to defend instead of listen.

I can only answer for myself that there seems to be some implic­it val­ue in the jour­ney. The jour­ney may be through a kind of per­son­al under­world. And the val­ue seems to be one of trans­for­ma­tion or the acqui­si­tion of wis­dom or to oth­er­wise bring some­thing of val­ue out into the world. I have a feel­ing it’s not about mak­ing our­selves or our com­pa­nies more prof­itable, at least not direct­ly or imme­di­ate­ly. I have a sense that the motive, at least for me, is the expe­ri­ence of the truth and liv­ing in a way that’s ground­ed in the truth. But I would also add that if our own per­son­al defen­sive­ness sets the lim­it for our own per­son­al growth, for our learn­ing about our­selves, for our capac­i­ty to see the need and to rein­vent our­selves when it is called for, then our per­son­al defen­sive­ness must serve in an iden­ti­cal way as a painful lim­it on the enti­ties we say we want to lead. 

Technorati Tag: . Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • Michael Piper wrote:

    Hey lead­ers need to kick ass! Keep peo­ple off center:-)

  • Dan, thank you for cre­at­ing a forum to dis­cuss the role of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in lead­er­ship. I agree with you that being defen­sive is the oppo­site of being vul­ner­a­ble. I am not so sure I would call the relat­ed choice to “respond.” Instead, I would be more inclined to call it “acknowl­edg­ment.” A response can be offen­sive (the aggres­sive form of defen­sive­ness), while acknowl­edg­ment is an act of acceptance.

    The rea­son peo­ple become defen­sive is because they feel threat­ened. Often the rea­son they feel threat­ened is because of their own, per­son­al view of the world (their “per­son­al under­world”). We all have a build-in set of assump­tions about how the world works and the mean­ing behind every observed event and action. How­ev­er, our views are only our inter­pre­ta­tions of real­i­ty, and there­by sub­sume facts of what actu­al­ly hap­pened. So vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is also about acknowl­edg­ing your inner voic­es as being sim­ply your defen­sive reflex­es that stim­u­late your imag­i­na­tion, and putting them in per­spec­tive rel­a­tive to what actu­al­ly hap­pened. I believe win­ning that inner bat­tle is the pre­req­ui­site to being able to accept real­i­ty (what actu­al­ly hap­pened) with­out feel­ing com­pelled to “respond” (defen­sive­ly). This is also the pre­req­ui­site for ini­ti­at­ing the vir­tu­ous spi­ral of reci­procity required to build trust.

    Final­ly, I’d like to address the big­ger ques­tion of the val­ue of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is the pre­req­ui­site for socia­bil­i­ty and sur­vival of most species. With­out it we would eat our young. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is there­fore also the ulti­mate moral stand. Hero­ism may be the ulti­mate act of vulnerability.

  • Alex, thanks for your great words of wis­dom. Wow, to iden­ti­fy the right words — respond vs. acknowl­edge, for exam­ple — is so tricky. I absolute­ly agree, “respond” could also sound defen­sive. It all depends! And often on that inner world and the inter­pre­ta­tions that spill forth so eas­i­ly, as you say. 

    And I also agree there are times when we believe we know the truth about what has hap­pened, and yet are lost in the vor­tex of our emo­tions. Would we do it any oth­er way? No, we think we are always guid­ed by the truth. So vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in this con­text means acknowl­edg­ing that one form of truth might be trumped by anoth­er — and I believe we are more like­ly to do that when we are in touch with our own pat­terned reac­tions. When we begin to rec­og­nize those pat­terns and begin to ques­tion them, and we notice the curi­ous uni­fy­ing fac­tor, “me,” in the inter­pre­ta­tion of events, an open­ing can occur. 

    The only thing I would won­der about in your descrip­tion is the notion of “bat­tle.” Bat­tles are time bound and win/lose. What part of any of us might say, “That bat­tle has been won. Now I stand above my inner world?” In this sense, I guess I would pre­fer the notion of a con­tin­u­ing jour­ney, an under­stand­ing that the “bat­tle” is nev­er entire­ly won, and the choice to keep going into the for­est that is essen­tial to learning. 

    At least in my own expe­ri­ence, it’s when I think I have act­ed most hero­ical­ly or I believe my hero­ism is unap­pre­ci­at­ed or oth­er­wise under attack that I am most in dan­ger of self-decep­tion. It is when I think I have been vul­ner­a­ble as a moral stand that I am in dan­ger of the very infla­tion I seem to stand against. This is not to con­tra­dict your state­ment at all, Alex. It’s just to acknowl­edge the actu­al com­plex­i­ty of what I believe you are say­ing. We are vul­ner­a­ble, even as we try to under­stand the depth of what it means.

  • @Michael Piper. Mike, my friend, it’s grand to hear your karmic reminder of how some lead­ers do think. We have all expe­ri­enced peo­ple who manip­u­late, or seem to, by keep­ing oth­ers off bal­ance. But of course this does not come across as lead­ing at all, but as pow­er-trip­ping, and it has the impact of cre­at­ing fear and intim­i­da­tion, not alle­giance and sup­port. So my answer late­ly is not try to think of some clever way to reply but sim­ply to do what Alex has not­ed above, to acknowl­edge, in an inter­nal way to myself, refo­cus­ing on what it is in me that’s sus­cep­ti­ble to being thrown off balance.

  • Great post. You win a lot more respect by open­ing up to fol­low­ers than try­ing to remain a hid­den, ide­al­ized form.

  • David, thanks for stop­ping by! Yes, that “hid­den, ide­al­ized form” cer­tain­ly does­n’t do much except cre­ate ambi­gu­i­ty into which peo­ple are like­ly to project all kinds of things. The Wiz­ard of Oz effect. It’s impor­tant that lead­ers know how to come out from behind the curtain.

  • Thanks, Dan, for this. I espe­cial­ly like your graph­ic above. Inter­est­ing that I wrote a post the very same day on the very same top­ic, and it seems (as I say in the post) that vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is up in many dif­fer­ence spaces. I linked this to vital need to come to grips with the sys­tems blind­ness from which we all suf­fer. If you are inter­est­ed check out — Thanks again for this thought­ful piece!

  • Hi Cur­tis — A lit­tle syn­chronic­i­ty, I’d say. But I also sus­pect vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is on many peo­ples’ minds these days. It is a vul­ner­a­ble time. For those of you read­ing these com­ments, be sure to con­tin­ue with Cur­tis’ great arti­cle. I love the lead-in quo­ta­tion from Gary Jem­sek: “The process of com­ing to terms with vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is one that nec­es­sar­i­ly shifts a per­son­’s val­ues focus to one that empha­sizes self-trans­for­ma­tion and inter­de­pen­dence.” Thanks, Curtis!

  • Thank you for the post! Awe­some. The prob­lem is who wants to slow down these days?! Ask­ing a leader who sets him/herself on fast track to slow down is like block­ing their way.
    Com­pe­tence with­out acknowl­edged vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty makes a leader (or a per­son) strong,but stiff, and lose authen­tic con­nec­tion with team mem­bers. These days every­one can see that’s fake strength, not leadership.

  • Lip­ing — yes, it’s cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble that a per­son might feel blocked by “slow­ing down.” But there is an old phrase relat­ed to orga­ni­za­tion­al change (from Herb Shep­ard) that remains rel­e­vant these days: “Go slow to go fast.” A leader who choos­es to push ahead can end up going slow­er in the end because of all the resis­tance he or she gen­er­ates with oth­ers, resis­tance that might well have been over­come with a more vul­ner­a­ble, open approach.

    Thank you so much for drop­ping by!

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