As I set out to execute on my agenda, it became apparent that many of our production and planning meetings were flat and lifeless. People signaled agreement yet did not produce the needed follow-through action. People were not listening to or challenging and shaping each other’s ideas in ways that allowed for shared commitment and passion. Pockets of extraordinary achievement were surrounded by a culture of resentment and complaint.
I became aware early on that telling the truth to myself about my own experience was crucial to moving the organization forward. In the course of a given day, there would be moments of overwhelm, uncertainty, frustration, and a recurring sense of being stuck and alone. There would also be moments of great excitement, innovation, curiosity and creativity. When I allowed myself to feel the truth in the moment about my own discomfort, the people around me started to move in different ways. I was shocked that something so subtle could have such a great impact around me.
The act of introducing vulnerability into high performance is tricky. These moments are easy to dismiss as “soft” and distracting. It’s also easy to slip into unproductive complaint sessions where nothing gets resolved and no real movement occurs. If the vulnerability and authenticity are not in service of moving forward, then extraordinary results are not possible. When confronted with big problems, I started to notice that I would either hide and retreat or charge forward in a messianic attempt to repair and fix the situation. I became committed to bringing authenticity and vulnerability to that very moment – before the hiding or charging forward occurred.
When I was able to connect myself to the depth of the difficult experience for even a few seconds – without needing to fix or explain or protect myself – I found I had an untapped reservoir of energy and creativity for moving forward. This allowed me the strength to have difficult conversations with compassion and clarity. It permitted me to tell the truth to funders, board members and program partners about what wasn’t working and where we were excelling. It gave me the courage to propose and fight for innovation and take big risks. These moments of vulnerability energized me to demand a level of honesty and excellence from our staff that was often times unreasonable.
Gradually, as we found ways of bringing more authentic and vulnerable conversation into the organization, we found we had more room to discuss the dreams and visions that people shared for creating an extraordinary, cohesive, core strength organization. We were more and more able to identify what we did brilliantly and what needed to go. There was more courage to effectively say “no” to programs that didn’t fit, to end partnerships that were no longer working, and to build new programs that were responsive to our mission and urgent community needs.
When I didn’t allow the truth to bubble up to my own surface, I would dig into a place of isolation and defensiveness, more concerned about appearances, protecting myself, and maintaining the status quo rather than with building something extraordinary. I learned that the energy of my own vision and the miracle of activating those around me always stood waiting after these moments of vulnerability passed. This is not an endorsement for running around sharing your deepest feelings with those who haven’t asked and don’t care. While the act of bringing vulnerability and authenticity to high performance is more often a very quiet, internal process, the creativity, connection and energy that follow are well worth the momentary discomfort of exposure.
Photo Credit: Charles Smith
Following are links to other articles in this issue of Transformation:
Gary Clarke: The Invulnerability of Being Vulnerable
Meaghan Smith: Vulnerability
David Norris and Charles Smith: Work and Love
Frank White: The Overview Effect and the Camelot Effect
William Bergquist: Tippy Organizations and Leadership: Engaging an Organizational World of Vulnerability
Barry Oshry: Take a Look at Yourself: The Self in System Sensitizer