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Scaling the Vulnerability Cliff: A Framework for Cultivating Courageous Leadership

In today's complex organizational landscape, leadership demands vulnerability. Gone are the days where leadership was simply about decisiveness, strength, and control. Leaders today must be able to show humility, admit mistakes, learn from failures, and connect with others on a human level. This requires courageous vulnerability. However, developing vulnerable leaders can be challenging for organizations accustomed to formulas that reward hardness over softness.


Today we will explore a framework for developing vulnerable leaders.


Research Foundation: The Need for Vulnerable Leadership

A growing body of research identifies vulnerability as a critical competency for modern leaders. Brené Brown's extensive studies on vulnerability, shame, and wholehearted living demonstrated that vulnerability is the core of courage, leadership, creativity, and authentic human connection (Brown, 2018). Authentic leadership theorists like Bruce Avolio and William Gardner argue that authentic leaders achieve higher levels oftransparent, ethical and sustainable performance precisely because they develop self-awareness through continued examination of their evolving vulnerabilities (Gardner et al., 2005). Studies by Daniel Goleman and others validate the importance of emotional intelligence which depends on leaders understanding their own emotions and weaknesses (Goleman, 2020). This research makes clear that today's complex challenges demand leaders who lead with their whole selves, not just their strengths.


The Vulnerability Cliff: A Framework for Growth

Drawing on this research, I propose "The Vulnerability Cliff" as a framework to help organizations cultivate vulnerable leaders. The metaphor of a cliff recognizes that developing vulnerability is an ongoing personal growth journey requiring commitment, perseverance, support and small steps forward over inevitable setbacks. It consists of four phases:


  1. Base Camp: Identifying Vulnerabilities: Leaders begin by engaging in self-reflection to gain clarity on areas where they feel most insecure, inadequate or exposed. This requires courage to set ego aside and seek honest feedback. Tools like 360 reviews and cognitive/emotional assessments can shed light on blind spots.

  2. The Trail: Experimenting with Vulnerability: Here, leaders practice small acts of courage by sharing vulnerabilities with a trusted peer or mentor. They try new behaviors like admitting mistakes promptly or asking for help. These experiments build confidence over successive small wins.

  3. Camp 2: Vulnerability in Context: Having gained confidence through experimenting, leaders now test vulnerability in professional contexts. They invite candid feedback from direct reports and peers. They share failures transparently to build empathy and trust.

  4. The Summit: Leading with Vulnerability: At the peak, vulnerability is a leader's default setting. They connect with others through shared humanity rather than positional power alone. They inspire courage in followers through role modeling. Adversity breeds further growth rather than retreat.


This model provides leaders a structured yet flexible framework to develop vulnerability as an ongoing habit of growth rather than a single achievement. The following sections outline pragmatic applications.


Practical Application


To begin "Base Camp," consider using psychometric tools to assess leadership strengths and vulnerabilities. The Hogan Development Survey can provide insight into derailing behaviors preventing vulnerability (Hogan & Hogan, 2007). The Vulnerability Quotient gives language to identify vulnerabilities resistant to disclosure (Brown, 2018). Pair results with candid peer/stakeholder feedback and coaching to set targeted goals.


  • Growth Partners: Pair leaders to support each other through the "Trail" phase. Partners commit to safe disclosure of vulnerabilities each week with coaching guidance. They also "nudge" gently when patterns emerge impeding progress. Peer relationships foster greater resilience than individual journeys alone.

  • Try/Fail Experiments: In the spirit of "failing forward," leaders design controlled experiments around behaviors most difficult. For example, a leader whose instinct is to control may try delegating fully and following entirely. Another may share personal weaknesses with a direct report. These small nudges build confidence managing inevitable discomforts of vulnerability.

  • Practice Public Apologies: During "Camp 2," simulate admissions of responsibility when mistakes were made. These could involve teams, peers or hypothetical situations to build skills in transparency and relationship repair. Reflect on how this experience impacts trust and safety culture over time.

  • Mentorship Circles: At the "Summit" phase, consider forming vulnerability mentorship circles. Leaders mentor more junior colleagues navigating early phases while also gaining perspective coaching others. This reinforces not only courage to admit fallibility but inspires similar virtues in those they lead.

  • Cascade the Framework: Leading with vulnerability requires developing responsive cultures where all can show up authentically. Consider cascading "The Vulnerability Cliff" framework across teams to foster psychological safety for all. Leaders model the way yet create space for others' personal growth too.


Industry Examples

The challenges of vulnerability are felt across sectors yet possibilities abound. Consider these real-world applications:


  • A Fortune 500 tech company conducted vulnerability assessments paired with executive coaching. Leaders report deeper empathy inspiring courage to try new behaviors leading higher retention and innovation.

  • An automaker piloted peer growth partners during increased digital transformation. With support, leaders felt safe navigating disruptive changes together rather than alone enhancing cohesion through adversity.

  • A healthcare nonprofit launched mentorship circles helping clinical and business leaders connect personally. Increased goodwill empowered vital discussions improving patient care, transparency, and community trust.

  • A global consulting firm cascaded "The Vulnerability Cliff" framework firm-wide through workshops, assessments and experiments. Thriving cultures of experimentation emerged inspiring creativity, social impact initiatives and recruitment success.


Conclusion

In today's dynamic world, leading with vulnerability provides an unparalleled competitive advantage. Those who develop the courage to show humanity and admit fallibility will inspire greater loyalty and performance than commands of force alone ever could. While vulnerability does not come naturally for many, “The Vulnerability Cliff” framework equips leaders and organizations with a structured yet emergent process. It cultivates habits that build courage through deliberate steps forward and inevitable missteps along the way. Applying psychology, mentoring and culture change together creates an integrated system ensuring no leader must ever confront vulnerabilities alone. With commitment, consistent progress is possible empowering leaders to achieve their highest potential through compassionate strength.


References


  • Brené Brown. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. Random House.

  • Gardner, W. L., Avolio, B. J., Luthans, F., May, D. R., & Walumbwa, F. (2005). “Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 343–372. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2005.03.003

  • Goleman, D. (2020). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review, March-April 1998 Issue. https://hbr.org/2000/03/leadership-that-gets-results

  • Hogan, J., & Hogan, R. (2007). Hogan Development Survey manual. Tulsa, OK: Hogan Assessment Systems.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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