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Brené Brown: Vulnerability in leadership
Blog - Didier Elzinga, author profile

Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp


Brené Brown is a sociologist who has written several books about why vulnerability is an integral part of success, both in a personal and an organizational context. At Culture Amp, she's a bit of a folk hero, and her work has touched a nerve for people worldwide.

Her work informs a lot of what we do and is an integral part of one of our core values: "Have the courage to be vulnerable."

Vulnerability builds trust and elevates performance

Brené has eloquently explored shame and vulnerability. Her work explains that we all struggle with things, but sharing them is not a sign of weakness. It's a compelling way to build trust.

Vulnerability is also critically important to performance. If you don't have the skill or aren't putting in the effort, you will only be able to perform to a certain level. But once you get to that level, it's vulnerability that takes you higher.

A great example of this was seen in basketball. In the 1997 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan drew the defense and passed it to Steve Kerr so he could take the winning shot. It took a tremendous amount of vulnerability for him to put his reputation and the game's outcome in somebody else's hands, but he did it, and they won.

At Culture Amp, we believe that vulnerability will not give you high performance in and of itself. But if you're already doing the work and performing at a high level, an absence of vulnerability will always stop you from getting to the next level.

Vulnerability is led by example

As a leader, the concept of vulnerability affects how I think and lead – I have to be willing to be vulnerable to create trust in our workplace. For many years, one of the first things that new employees at Culture Amp did when they started was meet with me. At that meeting, I read them the poem The Cloths of Heaven by W.B Yeats:

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half-light; I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

— W.B Yeats

The last two lines of this poem capture for me the heart of what Culture Amp is about as an organization. We ask people to bring all they are, their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears, and lay those down. But when they lay those down, they must know they're also stepping back on someone else's dreams. We're all being asked to be vulnerable, even the CEO. By reading this poem, I try to set the bar and show them that we're a different kind of organization.

While vulnerability is important for everyone, it's critically important for CEOs and senior leaders. It can be pretty lonely when you're one of the only people in your organization struggling with certain situations, but sometimes you have to be vulnerable and open about it. I've never regretted being vulnerable and authentic with our broader organization. I've got up and shared things that have concerned me or were quite tricky, and rather than facing condemnation or criticism, people have always returned and thanked me for telling them.

Being vulnerable creates a space for leaders to let others into their heads. If you're having a difficult meeting and you're not on the same page, it's ok to step back and say, "I'm in a bad mood and can't cope with this right now. Can we try it again tomorrow?" That's the sort of conversation that doesn't often happen in organizations, but showing that you can be emotionally vulnerable permits others to be vulnerable too.

As a CEO or leader, it's important to remember that your people usually know if something is not working. They want to see whether you have the courage to tell them. By stepping up and being vulnerable, you create a space to allow your organization to get to the next level.

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