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Let’s talk about Vulnerability and the Naked Emperor

Many leaders I coach talk to me about the challenges they experience feeling vulnerable and being vulnerable as they take up their leadership roles. I can certainly relate to this feeling myself.

I took a deep dive into this subject in my doctoral research and was captivated by the image presented to me from a leader I interviewed, (let’s call him Andy). Andy referred to himself as a “naked emperor”.

This image caught my imagination for days and weeks following our interview.  In case you are unfamiliar with the term ‘the emperor has no clothes’, it is derived from a fairy-tale, retold by Hans Christian Andersen (1837) through his allegory, ‘The emperor’s new suit’. The story communicates the downfall of an insecure and gullible emperor with an expensive appetite for high fashion. The emperor’s obsession with fine clothing was matched only by his fixation for weeding out any person he considered incompetent and, therefore, vulnerable, in his kingdom. So much so, that the emperor was fooled easily by swindlers who had convinced him they could weave him a magic suit of clothing. The suit was magic because its finery could only be seen by those who were wise, and therefore, invulnerable. Believing he was wearing the magic suit, he paraded naked down the main street of the town, remaining oblivious to his vulnerability.

So intent was he on proving his worthiness for his role, he convinced himself to believe the suit existed. The emperor’s followers were instrumental in this collusion. They willingly engaged in an unspoken contract: to believe what they all knew to be untrue. This collective contract was maintained because they feared being individually singled out and branded as liabilities to the kingdom’s strength. As the procession made its way down the main street, however, the pretence was uncovered. An innocent boy, naïvely declared “the emperor has no clothes!” Soon the crowd began repeating what the child had said, while the emperor continued his procession, attempting to maintain his dignity by pretending nothing had happened.

It’s complicated

Now that you are familiar with this allegory, I want to explore a hypothesis about the complexity of feeling vulnerable and being vulnerable as a leader.

In doing so I would like to invite you to hold a few things in mind:

  1. I am not suggesting Andy was acting like the Emperor in the story or indeed the Emperor I am describing in my ensuing hypothesis, rather I am asking you to reflect on the conundrum this allegory and my hypothesis alludes to. If you are interested in what I have to say, you might then like to ask yourself how much of this applies to your own experience of being a leader and being a follower
  2. When I use the term hypothesis, I see it as a thought in progress, much like a sketch of an idea, not the ultimate truth (as if this exists anyway). I fully expect the hypothesis needs testing in the real world, not just in the world of my mind!

So here goes…..

The emperor, captured by his own self-importance, coupled with the expectations of his subjects, is compelled to prove his strength and resultant fitness to lead his kingdom. Below the surface, (that is, in his mind and imagination) he maintains an idealised image of leadership (all powerful, all knowing, invulnerable). Applying it to himself, he denies his unconscious vulnerability, and projects this onto his followers.

Above the surface (what people see, hear and experience) he then becomes vigilant and intent on weeding out any evidence of vulnerability from amongst those in his kingdom. The defensive manoeuvres of the followers mean that they too repress their own vulnerability, pretending instead to be unaffected by the emperor’s nakedness. This “herd- like” behaviour protects them from imminent exposure, until a truth-teller offers an alternative perspective on reality. The crowd, spurred on by the boy’s courage, feel like they can now lift the veil on the pretence. The emperor himself then faces an impossible choice. It seems he must come to terms with the fact that he is fully naked (and therefore following his own logic, unfit to lead), or continue his folly. Both choices reinforce the very thing the emperor was defending against to begin with – the reality and acceptance of his own vulnerability.

Rethinking Vulnerability and Leadership

Brene Brown’s extensive research focusses on experiences of vulnerability and shame. It is dedicated to repositioning vulnerability culturally, as a strength, rather than a liability. She proposes and the findings from my own doctoral research confirm that,

“The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth and the most dangerous. When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable, we feel contempt when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up and soldier on. Rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgment and criticism”. (Brown, 2012, p. 33)

Our unrealistic expectations of leaders as superheroes (I have written about this previously), often lead us to judge and criticise them when they show their vulnerable human faces.  Brene’s words act as a sobering reminder to us all. Much like the lessons communicated through the allegory of the emperor and his subjects, leaders and followers play an equal part in perpetuating the myth of invulnerability and cementing the cultural status quo.

Our collective efforts to deny the inevitability of vulnerability for those who take up leadership roles, seem futile. Feeling vulnerable and being vulnerable, are natural consequences of both being human and leading change. Especially in these uncertain and challenging times. We need to reappraise our expectations then as both leaders and followers. The key to this seems to be a willingness to accept the probability that as a leader I will both feel vulnerable and be vulnerable. Accepting and welcoming this reality dismantles the myth of superhuman heroic leadership and diminishes the grip of unrealistic projections from organisational followers.

The kudos given to traditional patriarchal leadership is fading fast. In traumatic times good leaders understand that compassion is the most critical relational currency. I define compassion as the motivation to engage with distress and suffering and work to find ways to alleviate and prevent it. Leaders cannot cultivate compassion, if they refuse to meet pain, suffering, uncertainty, within themselves and in companionship with others. Vulnerability is a precursor to compassion. To cultivate a compassionate mind and heart set, leaders need to build enough courage to engage with the pain and suffering being experienced in their organisations. Only then can they learn how best to help themselves and others deal with this disruption and take appropriate action.

How can organisations embrace Vulnerability, rather than run from it?

I believe that our organisational development efforts are best placed by embracing the emotional realities of vulnerability and compassionately accepting this experience as an inevitable consequence of leadership. Rather than defensively moving against or running away from it, positive steps organisations could take in this direction involve:

Creating Safe spaces for leaders to think and be: The value of organisational members meeting together with the intention of safely reflecting on the emotional labour of their leadership experience, coupled with their goals for organisational change is backed up by empirical evidence (Zwart, Wubbels, Bergen, & Bolhuis, 2007; Parker, Hall, & Kram, 2008; Ely, Boyce, Nelson, Zaccaro, Hernez-Broome, & Whyman, 2010). Peer and executive coaching underpinned by reflective practice, has proven benefits for leaders and their organisations. It has the potential to support leaders to explore feelings of inadequacy or self-judgement they experience as an outcome of their vulnerability, develop a healthy relationship with themselves (self-compassion), and others, and in doing so, reframe vulnerability from a liability to a strength.

Normalising Vulnerability:  What a fascinating conversation it is when we talk to leaders about how they can be metaphorically naked, (but unafraid!) and the ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that will get them there.

When leadership development programs normalise the felt experience of vulnerability as a primitive human response to perceived threat, instability or change, it is a great and powerful first step. My work through Collective Possibilities and The Leadership Assembly does just that.

We support those in organisational authority to confront their likely fears compassion (I will write about this in a future blog) and cultivate self-compassion and compassion for others. We do this through exploring vulnerability and their relationship with it and coach them to move towards it rather than away from it. Participants report numerous benefits including:

  • generative thinking that leads to experimentation and innovation
  • stronger connections and meaningful relationships at work
  • greater self-confidence, courage, and connection to their purpose

This is the cornerstone of our leadership development work and work that I am so deeply grateful to be facilitating.