Courage Takes Skills: Vulnerability

Yikes!  I bet you are already clicking on.  Who wants to be vulnerable?  In a world that values strength and bravado, and fake it till you make it, who could possibly want to develop vulnerability?  And vulnerability as a skill?  For heaven’s sake, everyone knows that vulnerability is an emotional character flaw, not a skill to be cultivated.

Unless, that is, you are trying to increase your effectiveness as a leader by increasing your courage.  Then Dr. Brené Brown’s extensive work on the genesis of courage will interest you.  In that body of work, she defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”  She goes on to say that vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.[i]

If that’s the case, and her research is persuasive and extensive, then those looking to develop the skill of courage need to understand how to be vulnerable so that courage is unleashed.  Read on, for a few suggestions about becoming more vulnerable and so releasing courage.

First, let me make clear that the kind of vulnerability being described here is not akin to the common thoughts evoked by that word.  Effective leaders do not overshare, bring their emotional baggage to work, cry at the drop of a hat, lose their tempers and then beg for mercy, or rush out of difficult situations because they are overcome.  It’s NOT that kind of vulnerability from leaders that unleashes courage (and those other wonderful leader qualities: empathy and creativity.)  So, if it’s not that, what is this important skill?

The kind of vulnerability Dr. Brown’s research revealed as essential to effective leadership welcomes uncertainty, takes risks and dares a mindful and measured emotional exposure.  Let’s take a look at each of these as they relate to unleashing courage.  First, uncertainty.  For ecclesial leaders, uncertainty is often perceived as not being in charge.  People look to their religious leaders for a degree of certainty in a rapidly changing world.  I mean, who doesn’t want to extrapolate the axiom that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever[ii] to their priest/pastor and their congregation?  But, and this is a BIG “but”:  the sameness referred to here is that Jesus will continually be calling His followers to conversion, to growth, to coming along to follow him[iii].   Ecclesial leaders must welcome this uncertainty with the certainty of trust in the One who calls, and with increasing experience with that trust revealing God’s abiding presence.  In other words, they are vulnerable when they welcome the uncertainty of discerning God’s will and God’s voice.  With each discerning welcome, they become more courageous, more able to ask and seek again, and to lead their congregation to follow the voice of the Good Shepherd.

What does it mean to take risks?  Well the simple response is it means to be willing to be wrong, to get something wrong, to head in the wrong direction…to admit that, to change course and to move ahead.   Ecclesial leaders vulnerable enough to ask Christ what He wants of his Church must also be willing to risk what they’ve already thought and known, the way things have always been done, and even the significant donations of plank-holding congregants/parishioners in favor of following the voice of the Lord.  They also have to be willing to adapt as they go, meeting the barriers and successes along the way with an abiding ear to the Lord.  They may drift off course, misinterpret a voice or just make a bad decision.  All of this is part of risking taking Jesus at his word… literally… following the way of the Lord and leading others to do the same.  This kind of vulnerability allows an ecclesial leader to step out ahead of the people with courage.

Finally, vulnerability asks the ecclesial leader to lead as a whole person:  and that means a person who is mindful of their own emotional timbre, who does the work of emotional courage and emotional intelligence, and can then choose when and how to share some of their own emotional selves with an eye to being authentic, truthful and brave for the sake of leading others.  Change is hard.  Following Jesus is a constant journey of change…of moving from the narrow egoic mind to the higher mind of Christ Jesus as individuals and as congregations.  Leaders have to be able to share their emotional journey with regard to the change in order to connect with followers as authentic, human and on the journey with them, but still courageous enough to lead them as a whole person. 

This is what Dr. Brown’s research revealed as essential to effective leaders.  Here’s what resonated with me.  The Jesus I know intellectually and love spiritually was just such a leader.  He was comfortable with uncertainty, taking on human form and so limiting himself.  He took many, many risks from spending 40 days being tempted to nearly being thrown off a cliff in his hometown, to defying the Sabbath laws and welcoming the Samaritan woman; many, many risks all because faithfulness to his mission required that course of action.  He was not reckless, but he was courageous.  And finally, I know a Jesus who shared his emotions insofar as they helped his followers understand the mission and his commitment to it.  He wept over Jerusalem, he repeated his teachings to an often slow-to-understand set of disciples, he turned over tables in the temple, he sweated blood in the Garden.   I know a vulnerable Savior, who asks the same of those into whose hands He has entrusted leadership.  It’s the source of courage.   Trust the Savior.  Trust the research.  Learn to be vulnerable as a means of developing courage.

And next time, we’ll look again at Dr. Brown’s work…this time to see how to become braver as a leader.

[i]  For more on her work, see Daring Greatly or watch her TED talk on vulnerability.
[ii] Hebrews 13:8
[iii] Matthew 4:19


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As I write this, it’s just under a month until the first phase of the Church’s Synod on the process of synodality is to begin.