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3 Lessons I Learned While Trying to Become a Vulnerable Leader

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I grew up in a home that looked different than a lot of modern homes. The helicopter mom may be prevalent today, but when I grew up, my mother sensed that I would do better if I were less dependent on her. Early on she used to goad me to learn new things and take new risks. We lived in Verona,…
By Seth Barnes
I grew up in a home that looked different than a lot of modern homes. The helicopter mom may be prevalent today, but when I grew up, my mother sensed that I would do better if I were less dependent on her. Early on she used to goad me to learn new things and take new risks.
We lived in Verona, Italy. At three, my parents sent me to an Italian school. I was four and my parents brought me along to the opera at the Roman amphitheater. The Italian kids in our village were my playmates. I remember the frustration of feeling like a foreigner.
As I got older, my mom never let up. I remember a conversation from high school that began with her saying, “See that cute cheerleader Mary Anne? You should ask her out.”
“Mom, that’s crazy. Mary Anne is way out of my league. She doesn’t even know I exist. There’s no way.”
“That’s not true, son. Actually Mary Anne may be popular, but she’s not that good looking. You should talk to her.”
“Ugh, mom. It’s just not going to happen.”
Shy as a kid, I was more interested in books and ideas. I didn’t understand people and wasn’t going to take any risks trying to influence them. Any leadership potential I possessed never saw the light of day.
Somehow, from that hidden and inarticulate place, I’ve gained enough confidence to risk vulnerability. And I’ve learned a few lessons along the way. Here are three:
1. We are strong where we are weak
I found that instead of it being a sign of weakness, vulnerability can actually be a place of strength.
The truth is, we are all weak somewhere inside. Most of us carry unhealed pain around with us. And we work hard to keep it hidden. Many of us have connected around shared pain somewhere in the past, but it’s too risky to let down our guard and seek that connection.
Those leaders who have decided to share their weakness are the distinct minority. Most leaders I come across don’t see their ability to be vulnerable as a strength. Certainly that is yesteryear’s paradigm of leadership. Whether in the military or in some corporate hierarchy, you got ahead by projecting strength.
But these days, if you can share your weakness, people love you more. It tells them that maybe they’re not as bad as they feel inside. You’ll get more loyalty that way.
2. Vulnerability shows that it’s safe
Leaders who are strong enough to share their weaknesses diminish the power of shame. They allow teams to connect and become safe places.
I got a chance to see examples of safe and unsafe teams early in my career. After graduating from college, Karen and I lived in Indonesia. While there, I was fortunate to have David Bussau, a pioneer and natural leader, mentor me.
But within a few years, I got a taste of some pretty bad leadership. My boss got sacked in an organizational coup. His replacement came from a bureaucratic environment. And that’s the kind of workplace he created.
In our office, you kept your head down and hoped for the best. Then it got worse as the boss began to clean house. A number of us lost our jobs.
I’ve worked in other places where trust was low. I learned the importance of watching my back. One day I woke up and I was the boss. While the organization I ran was small, it felt like a family. And in a healthy family, vulnerability is natural. We prayed for one another and cared for one another.
3. Vulnerability allows others to learn from your mistakes
The organization I led grew. Eventually, I no longer knew everyone by name, and much to my chagrin, we were becoming a low trust environment too.
So, there was a gap. The kind of leadership I wanted to practice was vulnerable leadership. What to do?
Fortunately, we had the World Race as a petri dish for leadership. We found that if we were ever to help young people process their identity issues and grow in faith, we had to create a safe environment. And if we were going to do that, we needed to lead with vulnerability.
It was the one thing that worked over and over again. Every time we had leaders who led with vulnerability, others felt safe enough to begin to share their weaknesses too. Those teams bonded and became places of great growth.
Along the way, we heard more and more about the power of vulnerability in the press. Brene Brown led the way with her TED Talks and books. We noticed that her ideas began to filter into the workplace.
I realized that people could learn more from my mistakes than from my successes. My successes just made them feel inferior. But my failures gave them permission to take risks. Paradoxically, my vulnerability became a source of strength for others.
I’ve made so many mistakes in my various leadership roles. They are like potholes on the road that others behind me are traveling. Why not point them out and let others learn from them? Maybe I can save them some pain.
This past year at a conference the ministry I lead sponsored, I apologized to the audience for some of the larger mistakes I’ve made that have hurt them.
It wasn’t easy. They didn’t expect it. But in the days that followed, many who had been in the audience shared how much that meant. Had I kept on going with a show of strength, those kind of connections would never have happened.
Jesus was a vulnerable leader
Jesus was the ultimate vulnerable leader. He said, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” He also said, “If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life.” Matt. 5:28-30
He started his ministry by saying he was called to the weak (Luke 4:17-18) and broken and toward the end of it, shared a story of a wedding banquet attended by outcasts (Matt. 22).
We who call ourselves his followers have his example and his mandate. Why not walk into that next meeting you’re leading and see if you don’t get further with vulnerable leadership?

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