The Power of Vulnerability

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I require each of my administrators to administer a 360 survey as a component of their evaluation process each year. Every time this portion of the year rolls around they are quick to express the dread this process causes. After the surveys are sent out and data collected, the results come back overwhelmingly positive with 90+ percent of their faculty and staff strongly supporting the efforts of the principal. Not surprisingly, those pieces of data are largely ignored.

The negative feedback, which ranges from blunt to constructive to downright mean, is typically all my leaders can focus on. Tears come. Rationalization is right behind. And anger is usually a quick third. My advice is always to understand that each bit of criticism brings forward (at least) a nugget of truth and thereby an opportunity to improve, so embrace the suck. But, quickly thereafter, remember that the focus of the reflection should be on the resounding support each of them receive from the majority of the people they most directly serve.

I am sincere in that advice. I am also steadfast in my belief that for each of my leaders working through the pain of the critique is a vital part of growth. I LOVE this process. That is, until about three months later when I issue my own 360 to our faculty, staff, support staff, and community. I, in the hours and days that surround the receipt of my data, cannot find any possible way to heed my own advice. There is a cognitive dissonance between how I know I should react and how I actually respond. Annually – this is a day-ruiner for me. This year, for some reason, it was nearly a weekend-ruiner.

The feedback I received was not dissimilar from anything I had received in the past nor was it different than the experiences my principals experience above. For the most part, the information collected was overwhelming positive. If anything, the occasional negative feedback was so extraordinarily contrary to the majority of the comments that it appeared cartoonish. Still – my mind kept going there. Whether I was driving to work, mowing the lawn, or lying in bed my head went back to those negative comments.

In these passing moments when my brain wandered back to 360-land instead of something more pleasant, I was not focused on trying to figure out who wrote the negative feedback (come on – we all do that occasionally) or angry at the messaging. I was legitimately upset that someone felt the way they did about me. The issue was that I was upset for me during the first 24 hours. As time progressed, my perspective changed. I felt the same level of upset that some felt the way they did about me as before, but I no longer felt sorry for myself. Now, I felt sorry for the person or people I was supposed to be leading. I began to hate the fact that someone within my organization felt this way and began, in earnest, to think about how I could better lead so whatever feedback they left that was negative was no longer their truth next year. Basically, the process worked exactly as it is designed to.

I began to reflect. I began to grow. But damn – it was uncomfortable. Then, it became empowering. I felt vulnerable. I felt vulnerable as a human, as a leader, and as a professional. Allowing myself to be vulnerable allowed me to act with emotion, with urgency, and with a passion that I had not felt in a while. I realized in that moment that as leaders – and to a large extent as humans – we do our best to protect ourselves from what can hurt us. Some people live their entire lives this way – almost obsessively. This is great in many ways – for instance – it keeps us from walking briskly down icy stairs or playing with poisonous snakes. But, as a leader – this is our enemy.

Safety is the status quo. Safety is doing the job just well enough to get the next contract. Allowing ourselves to take challenges, embrace fear, and leave ourselves vulnerable is the only way we can make great strides forward in life or in our organizations. I forgot this until that experience brought me firmly back to reality.

My call to action on this is simply to embrace the fear and embrace allowing yourself to be vulnerable. It is, after all, our ticket to being our most authentic selves and the key to leading significant personal or organizational change.  And – without risk – the rewards are nowhere near as sweet.

4 Comments

  • Malinda Hurt

    Yes. All of it.
    I’ve tried to live my life in a manner that if anyone were to say bad of me, no one would believe it. I failed. I could blame it on small town living, the profession, my inability to contain my passion/excitement, or the fact that while I don’t actually like change – I’ll go for it on my own terms. I’ve learned more in my third year teaching than the three combined. I make movement not in spite of my small town or my profession but largely because of my love for them. I know my passion is largely appreciated and I’m training myself to not go all “woo is me” when people don’t like it/me. Instead I’m embracing understanding perspectives; more importantly understanding it doesn’t mean I’m failing or need to upset the applecart, little shifts or simply continuing to move through “the suck” is the answer. I feel, due to the type of people that are part of the profession – the push back and the suck just inherently hurt more, we feel all the feels. Remembering to be constructive and not allow it to deconstruct is vital. It’s a journey. Thanks for sharing, it’s surprisingly helpful knowing it’s hard for you too.

  • Deb

    I find these comments to be refreshing knowing that we all need to grown in our profession. I have learned that I may not please all people all of the time, and in fact there would be something wrong if I did please all people all of the time. Times change and people change. Criticism happens and we grow from it. No one likes the criticism and sometimes it sucks the life out if you, but it is a growing process. All I can be sure of is me. I know who I am, I work hard at what I do, and I care about all of the people I work with and for.
    I have seen many changes in times and people in this small community. I wouldn’t change being part of this community. I believe that if someone is criticizing they may not have all of the facts, and they may not know the real me.
    Thank you for sharing!

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