Courage is at the heart of leadership. Vulnerability is scary. Both are necessary for 21stC leaders

In an earlier post I asked: What skills and attributes does a principal need?
I answered my own question, listing things like vision, endurance and the last one was courage.

A tweet came back: “courage” is a key one.

How often is the ‘courage’ of leadership raised?

I watched a TED talk recently on vulnerability. Brene Brown, a qualitative researcher, emphasised the power in being vulnerable and the courage of vulnerability.

A city is vulnerable to attack, my home may be vulnerable to crime and a body vulnerable to infection. These statements convey negative impressions. So why, then, is being vulnerable important and worthwhile?

Through a journey that was personally painful, Brown looked at ‘How the whole-hearted live’. They lived with courage and vulnerability. The ‘whole-hearted’ have a strong sense of love and belonging and believe they are worthy of this. These people fully embrace what made them vulnerable and this also made them beautiful. This is not comfortable.

Vulnerability is essential to wholeheartedness and a wholehearted leader is the best kind of leader. Why? Because leadership is about people and people hurt and are hurt. We talk about the soft-skills of leadership, when they are really the tough skills of leadership.

I guess the term ‘soft’ emerged as a descriptor of a less tangible set of skills that focus on people, rather than task. In a sense, however, the term ‘soft’ underplays their significance. More and more the leader today is working alongside a team of people, charged to bring out their best as a means of achieving corporate or collective goals. The command-and-control method is no longer as effective.

A team  needs a leader who knows them, understands them, appreciates them and, dare I say, loves them. This isn’t a one way street. The leader also wants to be known, understood, appreciated and, dare I say, loved. This kind of relationship can only work with vulnerability

Vulnerability cannot occur without courage.

Being vulnerable means ‘capable of being wounded or hurt’. In a war zone, the soldier goes into battle, knowing that he or she is capable of being wounded or hurt, but they go anyway. The soldier shows courage, but courage and fear are not mutually exclusive.

Courage, and perhaps fear, are at the heart of leadership.

The derivation of the word courage is ‘heart’, a Middle English word from Old French corage, and from Latin cor ‘heart’, denoting the heart, as the seat of feelings. Vulnerability takes courage, because it is placing myself, with chinks in  my armour into the fray. Because of this I am more likely to show my authentic self, and I am real.

Brene Brown’s in depth investigation of vulnerability led to an unexpected consequence, what her therapist called a ‘spiritual awakening’, Brown called a breakdown, as it revealed elements of herself she needed to address.

The journey to vulnerability is not an easy nor comfortable one, but it will make us better leaders if we are courageous enough to take it.

7 thoughts on “Courage is at the heart of leadership. Vulnerability is scary. Both are necessary for 21stC leaders

  1. Wonderful reminders of what it truly takes to be a leader. Not everyone understands this. I think it ties in nicely with Jon Gordon’s Energy Bus work as well. Thank you for an encouraging and inspiring post! I plan to share in our Monday morning office team meeting!


  2. Love this sentiment Anne! Be uncomfortable today! Stretching brings growth. SImple 🙂 Finding people fascinating and valuing their role; no matter how small is also integral to effective leadership. And, as you stipulate; courage to grow, make mistakes, be vulnerable and march on as a team.
    Onwards and upward. Life is good.


  3. Thanks for this post. It reminds me of one of my favourite statements out of the book, The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. He states that most teachers are scared that students will discover who they are before they know who they are themselves. Consequently, teachers hide all vulnerabilities, but it when we are vulnerable that the greatest learning occurs. Thanks again.


  4. What an inspiring and thoughtful post Anne – thank you. I have often wondered about the “soft” aspects of leadership and, as someone who thinks of herself as sensitive yet very level headed, I have fought with myself over showing emotion too freely at times. I have also wondered if this is something that women, with emotions often closer to the surface, battle with more than our male counterparts? We don’t want to appear “soft”…it might just mean people will think we’re not tough/good/robust enough to be a good leader.

    As an Engineer, before I became a teacher, this was especially prevalent. It was almost like the women had to work twice as hard to prove they were as “good”. They also took on a more “tough” persona in management (command-and-control obviously the dominant paradigm at the time). This pressure to be tough and work super hard was never really verbalised, and was not certainly applied by our male counterparts at all; I ended up thinking it could very easily been all in the heads of the women.

    In education, being vulnerable (being human) allows you to really understand students and staff, to connect with them at a personal level. If education is bolstered all-round by quality relationships then it can be seen why it is so essential.

    No longer will I beat myself up for occasionally getting a little teary when I am confronted by things that hurt others, or hurt me. Yes I am vulnerable, but it does not mean I am not a good leader. I will be courageous!


    1. Thanks so much Laureen, I really appreciate that you took the time to comment. I agree with you, we can be a strong leader, vulnerable and feminine all at the same time. Maybe we need to encourage each other about this. I feel encouraged by you, thanks. Anne


  5. Well said! I find this to be a fascinating topic, as it is counter intuitive in our wild frontier-rooted culture. It truly does take courage to be vulnerable, and only then can we experience life fully!


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