How Curiosity and Vulnerability Drive Courage in Leadership
- POSTED ON OCTOBER 06, 2023
As we know, courage is an essential quality of what makes a leader someone to follow.
The tricky thing about courage is that it is not on demand. We experience courage only when we feel vulnerable. So, while we might want to develop our courage as leaders, it is not possible unless we wade into the vulnerable unknown.
Courage & Vulnerability: Expert Insights
Brené Brown, renowned vulnerability and courage expert, says, “There is no courage without vulnerability. Vulnerability is not weakness… It’s the ability to be brave when you cannot control the outcome.” The root of the word courage is cor — the Latin word for heart. Courage originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Courage occurs only by putting our vulnerability on the line.
Wait — what? No courage without being vulnerable? So, in order to have courage, we have to intentionally engage in behavior that we cannot control the outcome of? That’s a big ask. It goes up against logical reasoning, against our conditioning, and even against our biological and physical response to feeling out of control. So how do we build this muscle?
When was the last time you were brave without trying to control the outcome?
Last week, I got a surprise throat tattoo. Yes, you read that correctly. To be clear, I have wanted to get a tattoo for a few years now but knew that whatever I got had to be meaningful enough to have permanently placed on my skin. I couldn’t seem to decide on what image or symbol I wanted, or even where on my body I wanted it.
What I did know is that the process of receiving the tattoo had to be powerful and that I wanted the experience to call something forth in me that echoed the transformation I have been undergoing in the last couple of years. I wanted my tattooing experience to mark a rite of passage for myself, and to offer an ongoing structure to inspire me to become more powerful, more connected with my spirit, more on purpose. I looked around to try to find something that felt right. Nothing did. So, I let it go.
Definitions of Leadership
Take a moment to think about the people (some well-known, some less so) whose vulnerability and courage made an impact on you. For each of these people, vulnerability was the necessary starting point for their leadership.
Oftentimes, we see leaders not in their most vulnerable states, but only afterwards when their courage has already been activated. Finding models of vulnerable and courageous leadership is critical when forming new habits and embodying new behaviors of leadership.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
Here are three examples of people who spoke and acted from their hearts and changed the face of leadership for me and millions of others:
The first time I remember hearing about Greta Thunberg was from my then 11-year-old daughter. She came home from school one day and told me about a 15-year-old Swedish activist with long braids who had begun to stand in the cold outside the Swedish Parliament every Friday with a hand-painted sign that read “School Strike for the Climate”. As a family, we watched as Greta’s voice became louder as she put into words her generation’s frustration and demanded that adults take action to address global climate change for the sake of the Earth’s future. On 15 March 2019, our kids joined over a million people to demonstrate in about 2,200 events worldwide across 125 countries, all inspired by Greta.
Greta’s leadership inspired me to take a stand for prioritizing our relationship with nature by launching Spiral Leadership, a nature-based, spirit-led leadership program in 2018.
What is the stand you are willing to take alone?
And then, like many things, when I had totally given up on it, a flow of synchronistic events led me to a ceremonial hand-weaving tattoo artist in Los Angeles whose unique offering included the process of symbol design and placement for me based on several conversations we had discussing values, passion, purpose, and vision. Basically, the what and the where of the tattoo would be revealed at our first and only meeting.
When my youngest child expressed doubt in my plan, I replied blithely, “It’s not like I’m going to come back with my face or neck tattooed or anything!” Famous last words (but that’s the way with vulnerability: you just never know what will happen and what courage you might have to access in the process)!
Everyone knows about Rosa. Called “the mother of the civil rights movement,” Rosa Parks invigorated the struggle for racial equality when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks’ arrest on December 1, 1955, launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott by 17,000 black citizens, which led to desegregation on all Montgomery buses 13 months later. At the time, Rosa Parks didn’t know what would happen to her. Indeed, she was arrested for disorderly conduct and breaking the city’s segregation law. And yet we know that her vulnerability contributed to activating the Civil Rights movement.
Last year, we were contemplating moving off our beloved island home to find more resources to help our son in his gender transition. In researching and planning the move, a small still voice inside kept saying “stay”. After much soul-searching, we decided to stay put and get creative about how we support our son without sacrificing our values-driven island life that I have spent 45 years creating.
What is the seat that you are refusing to give up?
My Personal Vulnerability Journey
Fast forward to two weeks ago, I turned the cut glass doorknob and pushed open the rounded wooden door to enter the whitewashed adobe temple space. I was deep in a shady canyon of Los Angeles. Sun streamed in the windows; orange flowers bloomed on the vines outside. I was filled with trust. Like I was in the perfect place at the perfect time. And I was extremely nervous. What would my tattoo be? Would I like it? And where would it go on my body? As we settled in together, I felt my pals begin to sweat, and my heart beating faster.
When she finally showed the paper with the images that she had designed for me, I felt a jolt of recognition — like I was seeing something new, but that I somehow understood. She pointed to the largest image, “This one is the tattoo that you came for.” She pointed to the smaller one, shaped like a shining star that would go right at the base of my throat. “But this one is an extra symbol, a reminder for you to prioritize sharing your unique voice with the world.” Gulp.
I could feel my courage rising like sap.
It took me a few minutes, wrestling with the voices of my saboteur to hear my Leader Within say “Yes.” I stepped over the commitment line.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford
Remember in 2018 when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford took the stand to calmly accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault? I do. I recall my sheer awe of witnessing her vulnerability and courage as she spoke her truth to power. Even though she failed in her mission to prevent Kavanaugh from being appointed as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, her leadership forever changed me, inspiring “me too” to speak up and give voice to what I had been previously afraid to.
Dr. Ford inspired me to address several power imbalances in personal and professional relationships and to have several hard-truth conversations where I aired my previously hidden grievances. Some of those redesigned relationships are thriving, and some have been completed.
What is it time to speak up about?
An hour later, as I was receiving the tiny jabs into the most delicate part of my throat, I felt my spirit rising to meet me (waaaaay out of my comfort zone) in this vulnerable place that’s most important the place of my truth.
The Power of Ordinary Courage
We typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences, what’s important to us, and why. Brené Brown defines this as “ordinary courage.” This ordinary courage can lead to extraordinary changes.
Now, every time I see a reflection of myself, I am reminded of how much courage I possess. This tiny star throat tattoo has already become an incredibly powerful structure to keep me aligned and daring to use my voice to speak up for what’s true. Even when it’s hard (especially when it’s hard).
Finding Courage in Vulnerability
While my story of vulnerability might not resonate with you (throat tattoos are not required to activate courage!), I encourage you to look for and find leaders in your life where you can see vulnerability in action: people doing brave things that they cannot control the actions of. You will know who these people are because you will feel courage rising in you when you witness or hear of their moments of vulnerability and courage.
Begin to become aware of the small moments (and big ones too) when we have no control over the outcome. Are we creating these moments intentionally? In these moments of vulnerability, how do we engage? Are we responding or reacting? How do we open ourselves to vulnerability and allow for courage?
The Empowering Circle of Vulnerability, Courage, and Leadership
Leadership requires courage. Courage requires vulnerability. Vulnerability requires listening to your heart, following your heart, speaking from your heart, and acting from your heart. It’s time to prioritize our relationship with our hearts.
Does your path have a heart? If so, it requires you to enter unexplored vulnerabilities and access hidden courage. Prepare to be surprised!
Remember, vulnerability is not weakness; it’s the activator of courage. And courage is the fuel of leadership.
Courage for the Widest Leap
We do not know
what to think
but we know
what we are feeling.
Let’s go with that
We are off the map
throw away the key
faster than we can write.
Let’s go with that
We lead with our hearts
like horses bred for dressage,
the only way to hurl
our proud hearts over the fence.
Let’s go with that