A Violin for Vulnerability

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[in your head] the thought that someone might know that you need help is worse than not getting the help you need.
— Wendy Rhoades (portrayed by Maggie Siff in TV series Billions)

A lecture that I was never supposed to give ended up changing the way I looked at leadership. A chance experience helped me see that being vulnerable is not the same as being weak. Quite the opposite.

I’ve lived many moments without conscious design. Moments that have later sewn the tapestry of the life I enjoy. In the gym where I once worked, I backed my boss to hire a promising job candidate based solely on his account of the interview. That candidate later became my wife. In my youth, if the five-year old me hadn’t run through a neighbour’s backyard dressed as Batman (oh yeah), I never would’ve met the weird little bespectacled guy in the next street who is now my oldest friend. At the outside of my academic career, the lecture I was never supposed to give became a lesson I would never forget.

When I first started out as a research leader, I attended a careers event for young scientists. A few days earlier, the event organiser had called me to explain that an unexpected cancellation had created a free slot in the speaker schedule. I was invited to step in at the last-minute. Keen for more speaking experience, I accepted the invitation without blinking, and scrambled to put a short slide deck together. My mission: to deliver a career story to young scientists trying to figure out their own career path.

On the day of the event, I learned that I was to be the third speaker of the morning. I nodded in acknowledgement, pursed my lips, and tried to hide the silent screams reminding me that my slides weren’t quite ready. The terror leaked through my glassy eyes. During the event introduction, and for the entirety of the first two talks before my own, I sat cocooned at the back of the room, maniacally focussed on finishing slide 13 of 15…14 of 15…15 of…

Time was up.

When I walked to the stage, I could hear only the muffled echoes of someone introducing me to the audience. I looked at the session chairperson then I looked to the young faces in the crowd. I was supposed to open my talk with a slide on my career to date and how I came to be on that stage. I didn’t.

Sensing I might bore the crowd if I started my lecture so predictably, I took a moment in silence. Through the urgency of this last-minute engagement, it took standing quietly on stage to remember that I was still numb from a recent job rejection. I had applied for a new role and not even made it to interview. In that first empty moment on stage, I decided to share a different story. I felt compelled to delay slide 1 and tell the audience how I was feeling about the recent job application gone wrong.

It was like taking that chance in the gym to meet my wife, or running the through the neighbour’s yard to find a new friend. As if by the influence of some random charm, the tension fell from my shoulders as I told the young audience how crushed I had been feeling about the job rejection. Whilst I was convinced I was good enough for an interview, I just couldn’t see that I didn’t yet make the grade. Aware of creeping ego and unfounded entitlement, I told the aspiring students in the audience of how angry I had been and how unfair the situation felt. The bitterness of being cast aside was a hard pill to swallow. Building up the courage to dust it all off and try again seemed impossible…but it was necessary. Opening the lecture with a story of pain was more important than slide 1 ever could be.

That lecture was the first time I ever had a tear in my eye on stage. It was the first time I had ever been compelled to share my vulnerability. I had laid bare the wounds of war before brandishing the medals of victory. It was what happened next that led to me holding this moment in such high regard.

After the lecture, in the coffee breaks, several audience members approached me in turn. They all wanted to say the same thing - how much they appreciated hearing about the tougher times of progressing in a career. The audience enjoyed hearing about the stuff that didn’t appear on the social media highlight reel. To them, it was refreshing. A relief.

Before that chance experience, I used to panic before lectures thinking that I hadn’t prepared enough before standing in front of my audience. I had always been convinced someone was going to find me out. But still, whilst my early lectures were actually pretty good, those that came before the pivotal careers talk definitely had one crucial element missing. Before that day when I shared my story of job stress, I had never dared show any vulnerability. Ever.

Before sharing my vulnerability, my lectures had never quite hit the mark to pull in the crowd. Everyone could always hear me but not everyone was genuinely listening. I had never before shown the audience the simple, struggling, flawed, scared, and all the while persistent human being standing in front of them. That all changed after stepping into that empty lecture slot at the careers event.

As a leader, the people in your care respond positively to your vulnerability. The Harvard Business Review has additional accounts of this phenomenon in action elsewhere.

Over time, it can get dangerously easy to stand in front of an audience or sit across the table from a team member and appear as if you know everything. Consciously or not, it happens. Some people might hold the impression that you were simply born with the knowledge.

What’s far more effective than false bravado is letting people in on the secret. You, the leader, weren’t born with what you know. You worked hard. You made mistakes. You probably still make a ton of mistakes along the way to your success. Sharing your vulnerability shows the people in your care that you, too, are just fallible as they are. There’s no superpower to speak of. Only honesty.

How might you be more openly vulnerable with the people in your care?