The Vulnerability Paradox
by Ed Noot, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
In his landmark book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer states that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” 1 One could similarly state that effective leadership is also much more than technique. Several authors have recently highlighted the importance of vulnerability and transparency in leadership. In fact, Brené Brown says that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.2 Educational leaders today certainly need to be creative innovators who are able
to embrace and initiate change.
Paradoxically, leaders also face high expectations to be strong, decisive and competent. These powerful but often unarticulated expectations can be key inhibitors to a posture of vulnerability. Brown points out that vulnerability is not weakness, although it can be viewed that way, but rather is courageous. She also points out that vulnerability involves a degree of risk and uncertainty. The challenge is to find the point of balance, the sweet spot, a place of heathy openness and what Palmer calls relational trust, or what Brown refers to as a place of connectedness and belonging.3
The vulnerability paradox is particularly acute when leaders are in a position of accountability – for example, a lead principal, school head or superintendent with a board; a campus principal with a superintendent; or a vice principal or teacher with a principal. Worry and fear over performance reviews can easily stifle a healthy level of vulnerability in such relationships.
The challenge with vulnerability is, of course, related to shame. Brené Brown highlights this in her TED Talk on shame, as does the Bible. In Genesis 3, we are told that after Adam and Eve disobeyed God, their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked. Before that, the normative response to nakedness was comfort and openness. But sin distorts the response to discomfort, embarrassment and shame. The immediate response of Adam and Eve was to cover themselves, to hide themselves from God and from one another. Sadly, humanity has been erecting barriers to their true selves ever since.
The biblical narrative on a cosmic scale is the story of the Kingdom of God, but on a personal level it is a story of peeling back our masks to recover our true identity as sons and daughters of God. This is a complex but worthy pursuit.
Here are some examples of the vulnerability paradox:
- A leadership initiative did not achieve the expected results, but valuable lessons were learned that can help the school move forward, How does the leader frame this “failure” with the board?
- A leader is experiencing intense personal stress at home which is impacting the leader’s energy and ability to focus at work. Does the leader communicate this or hide it?
- A leader has had intensely negative personal interactions with a school parent who has just been suggested as a potential nominee to the board. Does the leader communicate this information or not?
- A school leader has served a community for twelve years and has been asked to apply for a job in an adjacent city. Does the leader tell their board, recognizing the risk of being viewed as not being committed to the current school?
Brené Brown gives compelling reasons for pursuing vulnerability as it moves us from a place of black and white to a place of some uncertainty and even mystery. It also creates space for failure and the learning that comes through failing. Lastly, she believes that being appropriately vulnerable:
- allows our true selves to be seen
- allows us to love with our whole hearts
- allows us to practice gratitude and joy
Indeed, she views vulnerability as the key to whole-hearted living and leading. Brown’s observations are enlightening, but her premise relies solely on human good will and ingenuity to reach the stated goal. How much more should the goal of attaining relational trust be pursued by communities who follow Christ – reconciliation incarnate.
Another author, Edgar Papke, in his book The Elephant in the Boardroom,4 also hails the benefit of coming to a place of relational trust. He writes about how the path to great organizational performance begins with mutual respect, and demonstrates this model in his diagram reproduced below.5
How can leaders foster an appropriate level of vulnerability to move to a place of relational trust? Here are some ideas:
- Create space for open conversation, perhaps one on one (board chair and educational leader) or in a small group.
- Meet regularly outside of board meetings – get to know one another personally, create a relationship built on openness trust and mutual respect.
- Model vulnerability one to another and talk openly about the challenges inherent in this process.
- Ask questions that open the door to vulnerability – what about your job gives you joy, energy and enthusiasm? What about your job drains you of joy, energy and enthusiasm?
- Protect vulnerability. Once trust is destroyed, it is very difficult to re-establish.
Vulnerability is a paradox indeed. If we want teachers and leaders to embody wholeness and integrity, I believe it is a paradox that is worth addressing.
The author wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to Dr. Rod Wilson, President Emeritus of Regent College for facilitating exploration of the concept of vulnerability and leadership as part of the Senior Leadership Enrichment Seminar, a two-year leadership development cohort provided by SCSBC for member school superintendents.
- Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 1998.
- Brown, Brené. The Power of Vulnerability. TED, 2010. www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability
- Brown, Brené. Listening to Shame. TED, 2012. www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame
- Papke, Edgar. The Elephant in the Boardroom: How Leaders Use and Manage Conflict to Reach Greater Levels of Success. Career Press, 2015.
- Ibid, page 89.