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Vulnerability & Leadership: It's Ok to be Wrong

(posted: March 15th, 2023)

I spent most of my life thinking about all my imperfections and about being wrong.

So do a lot of leaders.

Most of us travel through life in a kind of insulated bubble where we become deaf, dumb, and blind to our behaviors; consequently, we tend to think that there is nothing wrong with focusing on our imperfections and being wrong.

This is not a problem just for me and a handful of other people. It is a significant cultural issue that has impacted our lives, communities, organizations, and families.

What if we, as individuals and companies, stepped outside that feeling and started focusing on being right?

Leaning Into Discomfort

If we could step outside this comfort zone, lean into discomfort, and enter into this place of vulnerability and courage, this could be the greatest intellectual, creative, and moral leap we might ever make.

Let me start by asking you a couple of questions:

  1. How does it feel to be wrong?
  2. Do you really know how it feels?

Now let me ask you a different question:

  • How does it feel when you realize you are wrong?

Take A Trip Down Memory Lane

Reflect back to elementary school and the teacher handing out your graded test papers, or handing back homework. How important was that grade?

We started learning very early to be perfectionists and over-achievers. By the time you are seven years old you already "know" that people who succeed never make mistakes. You are doing things the wrong way if you are getting C's and you could even be considered dumb.

You may have freaked out that being wrong on a test could mean there is something wrong with you--I did.

We insist that being right makes us feel smart and strong. My mantra became "get all A's".

When it comes to our families, our job as parents is not to tell our children they are perfect. Our job is to tell them they are imperfect and are wired to struggle but that they are worthy of success, love, and belonging.

On Being Right or Wrong

In the last performance appraisal I received from my boss, he shared 23 things I was doing really well, and included that "one opportunity for growth". All I could think about was that one thing I was doing wrong and not the 23 that I was doing right.

Why do we, as people and companies, focus on what we are doing wrong?

In my many years of research and working with individuals and teams, I have uncovered a few reasons why. I have also come to realize I am not the only one who has this need for perfection and a fear of being wrong. It mostly boils down to a high level of:

  • Shame
    I'm not good enough, thin enough, smart enough. We all know that "not enough" feeling. What is your "enough"? Shame boils down to a sense of worthiness. Do you believe you are worthy of success, happiness, and acceptance?

...And a lack of:

  • Courage
    My definition of courage is, "open heart, open mind". Can you open your heart and mind enough to be imperfect?
  • Compassion
    The compassion to be kind to yourself first and then others. You can't practice compassion with others if you are not first kind to yourself.
  • Connection
    Can you let go of who you think you should be in order to be authentic, vulnerable, and truly connect with others?

In order for the above to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and truly embrace vulnerability.

Brene Brown found in her research that happy, successful people had courage, and embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable also made them beautiful. They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were. (I encourage you to watch her original TED talk here. It's only 20 minutes long, and well worth your time!)

Vulnerability is necessary - The willingness to do something where there are no guarantees.

Why are we afraid to be vulnerable?

It stems from our fear of being wrong and goes back to this need to be perfect, for everyone, all the time.

This causes us to numb vulnerability, because we live in a vulnerable world. We can't selectively numb just the hard stuff, so we numb the good stuff too: Joy, happiness, gratitude, acceptance, and success.

Then we are miserable and looking for purpose, meaning, and connection, so instead, we have a glass of wine and a large pizza to numb all of it. Our escape.

We trust too much in this feeling of being right.

This internal "rightness" we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what's going on in the world. We don't know how to act when we make mistakes.

Think for a moment what it feels like to be right...

  • What about when you are explaining your opinion or beliefs?
  • What do you feel when someone disagrees with you?

We often assume they are ignorant, idiots, or evil, and this leads to blame (i.e.: "They are 'wrong' because they disagree with me").

How can we learn to be comfortable with being wrong when we treat others this way?

Steps to Freedom

Our capacity to screw up, to be imperfect, is fundamental to who we are - not some kind of embarrassing defect to overcome.

Here are some strategies I have learned and am practicing daily:

  • Surrender
    Walk into the situation expecting to lose and win. Learn to be right sometimes, and wrong too.
  • Overcome Fear
    How are you going to finish this sentence: "I will try, but ." Figure out what this "but" is, and feel the fear, and do it anyway.
  • No Excuses
    Don't use human relationships as an excuse not to pursue your passions.

Are you afraid you will look ridiculous or fail? Try anyway.

  • Take a Leap Of Faith
    Step out of that tiny, limited arena of "rightness" into that courageous place of vulnerability. Look out and be able to say, "Wow, maybe I was wrong".
  • Practice Gratitude and Joy In Moments Of Terror
    Stop and just say, "I am grateful to feel this. Vulnerability and possible mistakes mean I am stretching myself and I am alive."
  • Believe You Are Enough
    When you work from this place that says, "I am enough", then you stop screaming and start listening. This allows you to be kinder and gentler to the people around you as well as to yourself.

Practicing these suggestions has changed my perception. It has changed the way I live, love, work, and parent. I hope it will for you too. I want to say to my clients, colleagues, employees, and kids, "Go for it" just like I did.

Don't leave yourself thinking, "If only I had..."

Challenge Yourself
  • When you hear the term "vulnerable", do you only think "weakness"?
  • Can you think of it as a powerful tool to help regulate your thoughts, mindsets, and actions?
  • How can you proceed with a new idea of vulnerability so that it is an effective tool for you in your personal, professional, family, and community life?

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