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Showing vulnerability as a leader… a delicate…
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Showing vulnerability as a leader… a delicate balance

For the September 5 Leadership Lab, doctoral candidate Johannes Claeys met with members of our Connect program in the Kapel van de Ontluiking in Groot-Bijgaarden. Next week, he presents his PhD on “Leadership and Vulnerability” at Tilburg University. During our meeting, he gave us a sneak preview of his research and we discussed the importance of “vulnerable leadership” in our own practice.
by Karen Wouters, PhD, Anne Lemaire | September 14, 2017
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Some recent leadership theories emphasize the importance of vulnerability. It seems to have become a “must” ever since Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on the subject. But vulnerability always entails the risk of getting hurt. Johannes Claeys has tried to clarify these risks through his research.

The vulnerability paradox

Claeys swiftly plunges us into the tension surrounding vulnerability. There is something called the “vulnerability paradox.” The constant struggle for excellence by organizations makes us feel more vulnerable. And it is exactly these organizations in which these feelings of vulnerability are consistently swept under the rug. Who is crazy enough to show vulnerability where success and results are concerned? Or, as one of our participants notices, “nobody wants to be labeled a vulnerable leader.” Meanwhile, she acknowledges that many feel weighed down by the issue.

"Nobody wants to be labeled a vulnerable leader."

Claeys tells us a little more about “transitory vulnerability.” As a leader, circumstances can put you in a vulnerable situation. It is important to be aware of the process that unfolds in those circumstances to better understand when you can and can’t be vulnerable. And, furthermore, to recognize and facilitate this process in others. Because yes, vulnerability has its benefits. Owning up to your mistakes, standing close to your people and being open about your personal affairs leads to more solidarity, trust, hope and openness, and creates a safe space.

Research has shown that this openness and safety in teams in turn facilitates mutual learning and makes them more innovative. But we have to be aware of the possible negative effects, such as damaged credibility. Vulnerability is a strong hand to play, but when you play it constantly, its impact diminishes.

So how do you make sure that you maintain the right balance? Claeys guides us through the door of the Kapel van Ontluiking, redesigned by architect Tom Callebaut in 2011. Here we get our first answers. The space invites awareness and this is crucial in the process of feeling and showing vulnerability. Closing the shutters – which, when closed, conceal a view of a garden, the stained glass windows and the altar – are a conscious choice of the visitor, inspiring a more conscious way of looking at things. And maybe even more important, a realization that perhaps we should not always show everything.

"It’s odd to see how easy it is with someone you really don’t know that well.”

After a guided moment of silence in the chapel, each person individually attempts to open the doors of their vulnerability. The insights were shared with an interlocutor. “It’s odd to see how easy it is with someone you really don’t know that well,” one of the participants notes. Another person adds: “It really is, but we’re also offered a safe context.” Taking the elements that came up here, Claeys offers his model of “transitory vulnerability.” It is a process based on three cornerstones.

Model of transitory vulnerability

1. Self-awareness

First, there’s the importance of self-awareness and regulation: becoming conscious of what’s happening, how it affects you, how you want to handle it, getting feedback on all of this and regulating it. If we don’t take some steps individually, feelings and vulnerability escalate. The art is first and foremost to capture the essence for yourself.

2. Social awareness

The second step, in which feelings and vulnerability are made public, is a question of timing. If you go too fast, you might make yourself more vulnerable than necessary. In this phase, social awareness and self-regulation are the focus. Questions like “What is the “setup” here?” and ‘”With whom am I in this space?” help us to change the story where necessary and forward it to someone in a controlled manner.

3. Contextual awareness

Finally, contextual awareness and self-regulation increase the chance that the vulnerability you show is perceived as brave and leads to positive results. In this phase, it is about the way in which the context is productive for power relations, the credit you’ve built up and the safety culture.

Given the positive results (engagement, learnability, innovation), it isn’t surprising that vulnerability is so central in recent leadership currents, like shared and authentic leadership. Still Claeys’s research offers important commentary on the theme. Vulnerability is, by its very nature, highly volatile. And not every vulnerability should be shared. With the right amount of awareness and self-regulation, vulnerability will benefit our leadership. This will eventually bring us back to the Ancient Greek injunction to “know thyself.”

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