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Leading Vulnerably – A Deeper Brand of Authentic Leadership

By Ernest Hoffman

Remember the timeless parable of a Good Samaritan who encountered a man left for dead at the side of the road? Rather than passing by while keeping a safe distance the way two other travelers did, he alters the course of his day, going above and beyond to help. From our first world perspective, leadership in this story looks like creating space in our lives to make a difference when it comes to those we find on the side of the road. Notice. Reach out. Give of yourself. Be extravagant. Spare no expense.

There is a different way to hear this story, though. Imagine being left for dead on the side of the road and ignored by two travelers, just when a third traveler heads in your direction. Oh, and by the way, you were taught to hate this third traveler growing up. He was one of them, a Samaritan. Even uttering the word “Samaritan” makes you feel dirty but now, in a strange twist of fate, this sworn enemy just might be your best if not only chance at survival, so what do you do? He wants to help; do you take his hand? Can you trust him?

What does leadership look like in this story if we’re brave enough to cast ourselves as the ones in need of being rescued rather than the rescuer?

Simple; leadership looks like vulnerability. It looks like having an impact through letting down our walls and accepting the notion that even our most bitter rivals, even those we label and misunderstand, have something powerful to offer us that we can’t live without. Leadership looks like accepting help when we’ve been trained to rely on our own devices. It looks like setting preconceptions aside to see what new reality we can co-create with others by breaking down the barriers of pride and self-sufficiency that keep us immobilized.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to live into vulnerability. In many respects, that’s the opposite of how we have come to define leadership. Words like “dominance” and “driving results” are far more in line with how we have come to understand influence than words like “vulnerability” or “dependent”; thus our tendency to identify with the Good Samaritan. Nevertheless, there are few things more powerful than acknowledging our need for assistance, particularly in those corners of our leadership practice where relinquishing control feels most uncomfortable. There is strength to be found – and shown – by owning our imperfection, as well as our need for support, particularly from those who are different-from or other-than.

To start the journey of breaking down these walls, I invite you to wrestle with the questions below:

Where Are You Right Now?

You may want to think you’re standing on your own two feet with the strength and independence of the Good Samaritan (and a part of you most likely is) but are you willing to connect with that part of yourself that is lying on the side of the road?

In the course of your normal functioning as a leader, what puts you on the side of the road are blind spots that take you by surprise and immediately thrust you into a mode of damage control. The person in the ditch’s predicament all began when he was taken by surprise. These can be weaknesses or emotional triggers that stem from old wounds. What in your life has the effect of completely blindsiding you? Where have you been a victim of injustice? When’s the last time something was taken from you, whether by intention or not, that left you feeling wounded? Where in your work do you feel like you keep getting burned, despite your best efforts to bring about a different outcome? Pain points like these make it hard to keep fighting, and easy to settle into a mode of functioning or maintaining that isn’t really leading. A part of each of us exists in this proverbial ditch. Start your journey to vulnerability by climbing down into the ditch and figuring out what put you there.

What Do You Need?

The needs of the man left for dead were fairly evident and basic; first aid, shelter, food, and a place to heal. What are your needs? I took a powerful step in my life recently when I recognized my need for connection. Retreating into my thoughts and work made it easy for me to fill time, while leaving gaping holes around my need for love and relationship.

Conduct a needs assessment on yourself. Where are the gaps, those places where your actual way of showing up in the world is at odds with what you know you are capable of? Where is “actual you” as a leader being covered up by “less authentic you”? Once you have this figured out, identify a strategy for closing these gaps and consider that it likely involves asking for help. For me, becoming more connected amounted to reaching out to seasoned networkers for basic guidance about how to connect with people. It also meant experimenting with different ways of being present in social situations and evaluating my success.

Who Is Your Good Samaritan?

Breakthroughs often happen in the most uncomfortable circumstances. There’s a moment of truth when we are faced with the choice of retreating into our normal (i.e., comfortable) way of functioning or trying something new that feels awkward and bold. In order to lean into something new, identify the Good Samaritan who can help you. For example, when connection was my need, my Good Samaritan was, frankly, everyone. Most people were more than happy to connect when I asked, but the onus was on me to state my interest. After identifying my blind spot as a leader – lack of connection; as well as what got me there – retreating into my work, rather than investing in relationships; and relating to others, with guidance from people who excelled at it; I was finally able to identify my need and ask for help.

Take a moment to envision your Good Samaritan. Can you see an actual person, perhaps someone who has offered to help in the past, but whom you’ve turned down or brushed aside? If not, perhaps you can think of uncomfortable situations that give you a heightened sense of risk and reward. Your Good Samaritan is anyone or anything you’ve been conditioned to dread or avoid. In your moment of need, it is often this person, event, or situation that appears on the scene – a threat and opportunity rolled up into one, although it will mostly appear on your radar screen as a threat! So what will you do? Well, it all depends.

What Needs to Happen in You Before You’ll Take the Help?

To be vulnerable or not to be vulnerable – that is the question, so what will it take? What will convince you that it’s time to reach out and take the hand of your Good Samaritan? For many, it helps to take baby steps, racking up small wins around leading vulnerably that will give you more confidence going into higher-stakes situations. Consider ways you can ease into taking the help, rather than attempting to do it all at once. In the biblical narrative, you’ll notice that being vulnerable started with allowing a stranger to provide first aid, then progressed to receiving a ride, staying at an Inn for the evening, and remaining at the Inn for several days with all expenses paid. Had the full offer been on the table up front, it would have been far easier for the man on the side of the road to turn it down.

Two factors are key; awareness and acceptance. Awareness happens when you know you need help. It can come from within, or even from receiving feedback from others that illuminates blind spots (e.g., 360 performance feedback). Acceptance happens when you allow yourself to be resourced with the help you need. Above and beyond saying “yes” to the Good Samaritan, acceptance requires you to be intentional about making room in your life to receive what is offered to you. When I started connecting again and people invited me out for coffee, drinks, or social activities, I found space in my life to make those connection points a priority. I also reached out proactively to make these connection points happen.

How Will This Story End?

Your opportunity to lead from a place of authentic vulnerability starts right now. You can choose to remain in the Good Samaritan role but be warned: your capacity to help those on the side of the road is inevitably limited by the extent to which you are well and whole. As this blog has shown, a second option exists; own the places in your life and work where you are the person in the ditch. Be on the lookout for your Good Samaritan(s). And, when they come, rely on what they can provide to bring you into a fuller way of living than you’ve ever experienced – a way of life that leads to reward for giver and recipient alike.

 

Ernest Hoffman is a Management Consultant with PRADCO, a company that specializes in assessment for hire as well as employee training and development. He has also been an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for nearly 10 years. Ernest has a Ph.D. in Industrial Organizational Psychology from the University of Akron and a Master of Divinity degree from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Bexley. His work is a published in a number of outlets, including Academy of Management Review, Leadership Quarterly, The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, and The Oxford Handbook of Leadership. He is currently a finalist for the 2016 HR Excellence Future Leader Award.

Ernest can be contacted at ehoffman@pradco.com.

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