The Oxford Dictionary defines vulnerability as: “Being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.”
Brené Brown, the Queen vulnerability studies, describes vulnerability as: “Uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
You could be excused for thinking bugger this vulnerability caper… it sounds awful! Hang in there… here is my version: “Choosing to shed my armour, unlock my mistrust, and striving to be courageous, loving and wholehearted in everything I do”
Here is the story of my year of living vulnerably. That’s a bit of a fib, it’s the story of my first year of living vulnerably and why. This article is an exercise in vulnerability because it’s the first time I have publicly shared my journey.
I was ambitious and driven from the outset of my career
I took great pride in being described as:
- Someone who gets shit done
- A force to be reckoned with
- The fixer
- The person who is low maintenance and doesn’t need help.
You’ve all just constructed a picture in your mind, haven’t you? I did too. I constructed a persona that I became. I was guided by the belief that I needed to hold my own in business by:
- Working harder
- Partying harder
- Shouting louder
- Swearing harder…. (mind you I still swear more than the average human!)
- And being tougher, more invulnerable.
I created a persona. A beautiful facade or mask that I proudly wore like a badge of honour. No, that’s B.S. I wore it like a suit of armour. Because when I was tough, formidable, uncompromising and being a force to be reckoned with and blah blah blah, no one messed with me. Right? (Wrong) And no one hurt me. Right? (Wrong)
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I was entirely an ogre. I was (and still am) a lot of fun. But when your private mantra is ‘don’t f**k with me or mine,’ I think there’s opportunity to examine the way you are living your life!
Very few people saw me warts and all. They saw what I allowed them to see. It was exhausting, particularly for someone with reasonable EQ. I knew what I was doing, however, a fairly virulent case of imposter syndrome pushed all reasonable thoughts about authenticity and vulnerability to one side… to be dealt with ‘one day!’ Avoidance, I worship at thy altar.
So, what happened?
I’d love to say I had one grand epiphany, wrote an action plan and changed. I didn’t. I had a series of signals that I saw, ignored and filed away for ‘one day’. (there’s that pesky avoidance again)
Signal 1: I’d been working with someone who had known me for a long time. We’d worked together in several different environments. I felt this person knew me very well. That person said to me ‘I’m glad you’re here. We need someone to shake this place up that doesn’t care too much about what people think, isn’t emotional and can get shit done. You’ve got a hard heart and won’t get sucked in.’ I was aghast… but you know, I’m ashamed to say, there was part of me that felt some satisfaction in being described that way.
Signal 2: I was doing some very deep leadership work during my MBA studies. I undertook a lot of self-analysis, reflection and planning to increase my effectiveness as a leader. I gained valuable knowledge about myself. I had a couple of aha! moments. I constructed an action plan. I filed it…. for ‘one day’.
Signal 3: In the final stages of an interview for a role, the executive who was hiring me had a chat with me about my reference checks. You know, those reference checks that happen without you knowing it? He had spoken to several people that had worked with me (mind you, they were all men… but that is another conversation) and he told me that these guys said I was tough, did not tolerate fools gladly, got shit done, could be a ‘bit of a hard case’ but completely passionate and committed to my team, my work and my causes.
Once again, the feedback didn’t surprise me… but this time it did concern me
Here I was, successful but stuck. Successful but unfulfilled. Successful but not going to get this job which I really really wanted. The problem with me was that I had an attitude of it is ‘them not me’ when life served up a tricky situation or presented me with a difficult challenge. At that moment, I genuinely thought something must change. Because what has got me here is no longer enough.
But then I got a surprise. The hiring manager said ‘I see through you Michelle. It’s all a front, isn’t it? You’ve had to be tough, play hard and now you’re stuck with this persona you’ve created for yourself, haven’t you? I know that you’re all that, but you’re more, much more.’
Then he hired me. Whaaaaat? Game changing moment.
I used that signal, and some others, to change my game
I chose a change of role to lose the persona, sell the suit of armour and to lead with authenticity, transparency and vulnerability.
Why? Because what had got me here was no longer enough. In fact, it was outdated and did not serve me or the people that relied on me as a leader well.
So began the reinvention steps. So, began the anxiety… because I was now about to create an environment of continuous emotional exposure.
But I pressed on. I chose to:
- Document and share my leadership philosophy – truthfully and authentically
- Admit that I needed help and asked for it
- Delegate more
- Start using the word love… at work!
- Invoke boundaries and learn to say no
- Put my hand up to do interesting things which were sometimes a bit scary
- Admit in public that I didn’t know it all, have it all or want it all!
- Listen more, try new things more
- Embrace my flaws
- Live a life of trying to give less f**ks about what people thought of me
I fell in love!
- With my team
- With my life
But most importantly, I fell in love with myself for the first time in my life. In November 2015, I said out loud to another human being “I really like myself and I love who I’ve become” and yes, lots of tears ensued.
From an outcomes perspective (because I didn’t just become a warm and fuzzy person who doesn’t care about getting shit done!), here’s what leading in a truly authentic and vulnerable way enabled.
- I achieved employee engagement scores of 88 per cent 92 per cent year-on-year which were significantly above the industry and organisational average. The reason we strive for teams of highly engaged people is well documented. I had a highly engaged, high performance, highly productive and loyal team. The sort of team that people asked to come and work in. Yep, that felt good.
- I am regularly asked to be involved in deeply satisfying work. I began working on projects and initiatives inside and outside of work that were absolutely aligned to my very public purpose and philosophy.
- I (eventually) quit my corporate job, with the confidence to follow my bliss.
- Most importantly, I’m healthy and happy!
So, my very strong recommendation is to stop and reflect about how you are living your life. Because this is no dress rehearsal so embrace your vulnerability and start living and leading wholeheartedly and vulnerably. It’s bloody good!
This article was first published on TEAM Women Australia.