Leading With Vulnerability

Leading With Vulnerability


The NFL Playoffs have begun!

I love seeing and feeling the passion in a Playoff game – the intensity is palatable. This week, I was also struck by the intensity and power of the hits players endure. I forget, sitting on my comfortable couch, these are 250+ pound guys, running fast and smashing into each other! The bigger the hit the louder the cheer, but often the guy getting hit doesn’t seem to know where (or who) he is as he gets up!

The pain must be intense. I don’t care how macho they try to look – it has to hurt like hell to get pummeled the way they do. Add frigid temperatures and rock hard turf and you start to wonder why they do it. It is expected they give more each play.

Bottom line – not only are they expected to play in pain – the great ones flourish and excel in pain.

But how does this relate to you? I doubt you will ever play professional sports. But does that mean you don’t have to “play in pain?” I don’t think so – let me explain…

When you choose a profession, you shouldn’t expect (or want) a pain-free career. In fact, I advocate if you are “pain-free,” you’ll come to hate your career (and life). Without pain – you greatly limit your daily experience and your full potential!

Understand that “pain” for you isn’t the physical kind like in sports. Instead, it is psychological and emotional.

The pain you must play in is called vulnerability.

Not many enjoy being vulnerable. Just look at the definition:

Vulnerable: 1. capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; 2. open to attack or damage; 3. assailable.

Wow – sign me up!   Sounds great!    NOT!

It is no surprise you don’t want to play with this type of pain – it isn’t fun. Just remember, if you avoid situations where you can be emotionally wounded or open to criticism there are consequences.  While the avoidance of vulnerability may first seem wise – over time, you leave the field of play and find yourself sitting on the sidelines.

If you sit on the sidelines – you get left behind. You miss out. Ironically, avoiding pain (vulnerability) in order to protect, kills you with mediocrity. You stagnate and settle.

“Not me”, you say. “I’m not missing anything!”

I’m not so sure. Let’s take a look at typical situations where you can choose to play in pain (be vulnerable) or choose to avoid the pain (and thus miss the potential gain):

  • Trying something new and getting criticized by a boss/coworker for a mistake
  • Failing to bid on a promotion because you don’t want to be rejected
  • Trying new skills and looking silly to others
  • Dealing with conflict at work; confronting a troubled worker
  • Entering a project with limited knowledge or experience
  • Sharing opinions or perspectives that could be ridiculed
  • Hitting the ‘publish’ key for a blog post
  • Leaving the stability of a high-tenured job for a new company
  • Moving away from friends and family to start a new dream or adventure
  • Having a candid conversation with a spouse about frustrations or resentments
  • Going to a doctor to see if the pain you have been experiencing is something serious or not
  • Confronting a co-worker for his/her behavior
  • Talking politics to someone with opposing views
  • Striking up a conversation with a stranger
  • Asking someone to lunch or dinner whom you don’t know well
  • Changing careers or going back to school
  • Taking a leadership position at your church or favorite charity

These are each ‘moments of truth’ where you choose to be vulnerable and engage or choose to walk away (while rationalizing to yourself it would be dumb to try).

Be careful – unless you regularly force yourself to “play in pain” – you slowly lose your edge. Eventually, you become too afraid to engage.

It is a sad turn of events. In your early days, you accepted pain and “played to win”. Without noticing, you begin avoiding vulnerability and start to “play not to lose.”

Brené Brown has written a lot about Vulnerability – I’m a big fan of her work. In the introduction of her book “Daring Greatly” she writes:

Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.

Do the Work:

Don’t complicate this. Like exercise – start small and build on your success. Train yourself to “play in pain” with several simple tasks:

  • Deliberately seek out situations that transcend your comfort zone and just do it!
  • Start to fail – small failure at first and then bigger.
  • Make a point to be notably vulnerable at least once a week.
  • Keep a journal of situations and relationships where you choose to avoid pain – force yourself to engage one of these every month.
  • Try to leave your comfort zone at least once a day (start with once a week if daily is too daunting)
  • Strive for one significant failure this year.

I hope you never learn what it feels like to be tackled by a 350-pound lineman.

I hope more that you accept vulnerability as the price of a rich and rewarding life.

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