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My Year of Living Vulnerably

This is my story about how vulnerability is a leadership and life game-changer. It is my story of a gradual awakening of how I “armoured up” every single day to avoid being vulnerable. A story that demonstrates how wrong I was about leadership and life.

Let’s Define Vulnerability

The Oxford Dictionary defines vulnerability as

Being Exposed to The Possibility of Being Attacked or Harmed, Either Physically or Emotionally

The Queen of vulnerability studies, Brené Brown describes vulnerability as

Uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure

You could be excused for thinking bugger this vulnerability caper, it sounds awful!  Hang in there, here is my version:

Choosing to shed my armour, unlock my mistrust, and striving to be courageous, loving and whole hearted in everything I do

This is the story of my first year of living vulnerably and why.

The Ambitious Invulnerable Woman

I was ambitious and driven from the outset of my career. I took great pride in being described as:

  • Tough
  • Uncompromising
  • Someone who Gets Shit Done
  • Formidable
  • A force to be reckoned with
  • A fixer
  • The person who is low maintenance and doesn’t need help.

You may have constructed an avatar of who I was.  I did too. I constructed an avatar that I became. I was guided by the belief that I needed to hold my own in business by:

  • Working harder
  • Partying harder
  • Shouting louder
  • Swearing harder (mind you,  I still swear more than the average human!)
  • And being tougher. More invulnerable.

I created a persona. A beautiful facade or mask that I proudly wore like a badge of honour. No, that’s B.S. I wore it like a suit of armour that Brienne of Tarth would be proud of! Because when I was tough formidable uncompromising and being a force to be reckoned (Brienne!) no one messed with me. Right? (Wrong) And no one hurt me. Right? (Wrong)

My Year of Living Vulnerably - Michelle Redfern

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I was entirely an ogre. I was (and still am) a lot of fun. But when your private mantra is ‘don’t f**k with me or mine’ then there is clearly an opportunity to examine the way you are living your life!

Very few people saw me warts and all. They saw what I allowed them to see. It was exhausting, particularly for someone with reasonable EQ. I knew what I was doing, however, a fairly virulent case of imposter syndrome pushed all reasonable thoughts about authenticity and vulnerability to one side, to be dealt with one day, far into the future.  Avoidance, I worship at thy altar.

The Moment(s) of Truth

I’d love to say I had one grand epiphany, wrote an action plan, and changed. That did not happen. Instead, I had a series of signals that I saw, ignored & filed away for “one day”.

Signal 1: Someone I have been working for a long time, who knew me very well (I thought)  said to me:

I am glad you are here. We need someone to shake this place up and who is someone that doesn’t care too much about what people think, isn’t too emotional and can get shit done. You’ve got a hard heart and won’t get sucked in.

I was aghast … but you know, I’m ashamed to say, there was part of me that felt some satisfaction in being described that way.

Signal 2: I was doing some very deep leadership work during my MBA studies. I undertook a lot of self-analysis, reflection, and planning to increase my effectiveness as a leader. I gained valuable knowledge about myself. I had a couple of aha! moments which meant I wrote an action … which was filed away to be looked at “one day”.

Signal 3: In the final stages of an interview for a role, the exec who was hiring me had a chat with me about my reference checks. You know, those reference checks that happen without you knowing it? He had spoken to several people that had worked with me (mind they were all men…but that is another conversation) and he told me that these guys said I was tough, did not tolerate fools gladly, got shit done, could be a ˜bit of a hard case” but completely passionate and committed to my team, my work, and my causes. I was pissed off!

When I Finally Got It

Yes, I was pissed off about those reference checks. But not at them, I was pissed off at me! Here I was, successful, but stuck. Successful, but unfulfilled. Successful, but not going to get this job which I really really wanted. The problem with me was that I had an attitude of it is them not me when life served up a tricky situation or presented me with a difficult challenge. At that moment, I genuinely thought something must change. Because what has got me here is no longer enough.

But then I got a surprise. The hiring manager said:

I see you Michelle. It is all a front, isn’t it? You’ve had to be tough, play hard and now you are stuck with this personality you have created for yourself. I know that you are all that, but you are more, much more.

Then he hired me. Whaaaaat? Game-changing moment.

When the Game Changed

The game changed when I chose a change of role. It was time to lose the avatar, sell the suit of armour, and lead with authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability. I chose to change my own game.

What had got me here was no longer enough. In fact, it was outdated and did not serve me or the people that relied on me as a leader well.

So, the reinvention and renovation of me began. Anxiety became my constant companion because I was now about to create an environment of continuous emotional exposure.

Nevertheless, I persisted! I chose to:

  • Document and share my leadership philosophy – truthfully and authentically
  • Admit that I needed help and asked for it
  • Delegate more
  • Start using the word love … at work!
  • Invoke boundaries and learn to say no
  • Put my hand up to do interesting things which were sometimes a bit scary
  • Admit in public that I didn’t know it all, have it all, or want it all!
  • Listen more, try new things more
  • Embrace my flaws
  • Live a life of trying to give less f**ks about what people thought of me

As a result of these actions, I fell (back) in love with my work and my life. But most importantly I fell in love with myself, for the first time in my life. In November 2015, I said out loud to another human being “I really like myself & I love who I’ve become” and yes lots of tears followed.

Vulnerability Enables Leadership Success

Leading in a truly authentic and vulnerable way enabled me to accomplish many things I am proud of:

  1. I achieved employee engagement scores of 88% & 92% year on year which were significantly above the industry and organisational average. The reason we strive for teams of highly engaged people is well documented.
  2. I had a highly engaged, high-performance, highly productive, and loyal team. The organisation and team that people asked to come and work in.
  3. I was regularly asked to be involved in deeply satisfying work. I began working on high-profile initiatives inside and outside my organisation that were aligned to my purpose and the organization’s goals.
  4. Most importantly, I’m a healthy, happy leader.

So, my very strong recommendation is to stop and reflect on how you are living and leading. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Embrace your vulnerability and start living and leading wholeheartedly and vulnerably. It is great for everyone, yourself included.

Change Your Game

Read: What Bosses Gain by Being More Vulnerable
Read: Self-Awareness: The Foundation of Emotional Intelligence
Do: The Johari Window
Know: Your Unique Strengths