Vulnerability Is Power

By Susannah Wellford | Opinion Contributor | usnews.com

At a party the other night with high powered women in Washington, the discussion turned to vulnerability. Is the ability to be vulnerable an asset for women leaders or is it incompatible with the image we need to project to make it to the top?

I went back and rewatched Brene Brown’s excellent TED Talk on the subject to see what I could find. Her talk on vulnerability reached almost 6 million people, including dozens of my friends who all forwarded it to me. If you haven’t seen it, please watch it. Her idea is that allowing yourself to be known, flaws and all, will actually make you stronger. To be vulnerable makes you more real and relatable, and it is the only way to be truly authentic. Brown said that by not trying to project a superhero image all the time, you actually become a stronger, more connected person. But is it possible to embrace vulnerability as a woman leader?

As leaders, women face a unique set of challenges. To be taken seriously, we need to appear tough, be smarter than everyone else in the room, and have clothes and hair that are professional and attractive without being a distraction. It can feel like an impossible role to play. What’s worse is that the majority of the women I know feel the need to present a perfect image while underneath it all they feel like imposters. They feel, as Brown explains, that if the people in the room knew who they actually were, they wouldn’t value them.

I believe that being authentic in all aspects of our lives yields greater personal and professional satisfaction. So while it’s important to be flexible and adaptive to your work culture, it’s even more important to choose to work in a culture that allows you to be authentic. – Etheline Desir

Men of course feel the need to be perfect, too, and many of them talk about their struggles with imposter syndrome. But male leadership is the standard – they’ve had a hold on power for the entire history of the known world. Women, in some ways, are still inventing what it means to be a female leader. They are trying to figure out the right balance of femininity and masculinity. As we see with the press on whether Hillary Clinton looks presidential, it can be very hard for women to feel they are getting it right.

In my own life I’ve felt this acutely. I frequently feel like an imposter, and I always feel the need to be composed, in control and to look the part of a leader, whatever that means. It is exhausting. I’ve struggled with what it means to take Brown’s advice to be vulnerable. What I think she wants us to do is to let down our guard a little bit. To be more real with people, both personally and professionally, and to not worry about our image so much. The idea is that if we let people really know us, all those imperfections we are trying so desperately to hide will be defused. It’s about realizing that we’ll still be loved and respected even when people know we are not perfect. And it is probably about being OK when you still get judged by some for not being that perfect person.

Brown ends her talk with a list of how to live a more vulnerable life:

• Let ourselves be seen for who we really are.

• Love with our whole heart, even when there is no guarantee.

• Practice gratitude and joy especially when we are afraid.

• Believe you are enough.

I’ve tweaked her list a bit for the woman leader:

Be kinder to ourselves. The pursuit of perfection, whether it is in how we look or whether the speech we are writing is flawless, leads to unhappiness and wastes so much of our time. We should try to be OK with who we are, not who we think others want us to be. That woman who we think looks perfect and has the perfect life is probably thinking the same thing about us. And guess what? Neither of us actually does.

Don’t always pretend we know everything. Women tell me all the time they need to be the smartest one in the room in order to be taken seriously. We need to do a better job of admitting when we don’t know something. It’s the only way we learn.

Ask for help. My mom always told me that the best way to make a friend was to ask them for a favor. Asking for help doesn’t make us weak, it shows others that we need them, and they like that.

Allow ourselves to fail. When we get caught up in being perfect and preserving our image, we often avoid taking risks where we might fail. Being OK with making mistakes is key to success, and admitting to others when we fail is a powerful leadership skill.

Some reading this will say that the standards for women are too high and that the only way we can rise to the top is by being better, stronger and more perfect than those around us. But the best leaders I know are those who forge their own path and who don’t compromise on who they really are. I think we should all take Brown’s advice and embrace vulnerability as our superpower. We’ll not only be stronger leaders, we’ll be happier people too.