Actualized Leadership: Vulnerability

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
Helen Keller

In my last blog I outlined the three elements of the Transformational Cycle: Vulnerability, Responsibility and Forgiveness.  In this blog I would like explore the concept of vulnerability and why it is foundational for personal growth and transformational change.

I chose the quote from Helen Keller to set up this week’s discussion because her insight really says it all: security is a superstition; it does not exist.  In “The Abilene Paradox,” Dr. Jerry Harvey mused on this existential question by asking, “Can we ever really play it safe?”  He concluded that the answer is no, real risk is a part of the human condition.  Helen Keller goes on to say something even more provocative: avoiding danger is no safer than outright exposure.  Your life may feel more secure and predictable when you play it safe, but the price you will pay is very steep.  The degree to which you’re willing to be vulnerable will determine where your life will fall on the following scale:

Daring Adventure —————————————– Nothing

To review, vulnerability is defined as “… being susceptible to being wounded or hurt.”  Based on this definition, it seems logical to avoid or defend against vulnerability.  After all no one wants to be wounded or hurt.  However, Dr. Brene Brown’s seminal work in vulnerability demonstrates that when we guard ourselves from disappointment, shame, rejection, and the like, we also shut down the possibility of experiencing the positive emotions that vulnerability and authenticity create.   Yes, it’s true that we may avoid disappointment by keeping our defenses up, but we will never experience the exhilaration of victory.  We may evade rejection, but we will never experience connection.  We may avoid having our hearts broken, but they will never be filled, either.  Brene Brown uses the term “wholehearted” for those courageous enough to stand in the uncertainty and ambiguity of vulnerability, because they will experience the entire range of what it means to be human.

So far we have defined vulnerability and examined why we avoid it.  We have also explored the real price we pay when we defend or numb ourselves against it.  The big question to ask is “why” – why is vulnerability important for change and personal growth?

Vulnerability is the first element of the Transformational Cycle because it allows us to experience deep self-awareness and reflection.  When we are willing to let go of our persona and façade that keep us secure and protected, we open ourselves up to the feedback and awareness necessary for growth.  In doing so, we take our first meaningful step on the transformational journey.  Said another way, when we let go of who we think we should be, we create the space to actualize into what we can be.

Being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness.  In fact, it requires great courage to be seen and heard as you truly are, to be open to feedback, and to be comfortable with personal reflection and deep awareness knowing that you – you, just as you are right now – are enough.

The following quote from C.S. Lewis sums up vulnerability, and the ultimate price we will pay if we choose to avoid it:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

When we are willing to be vulnerable we live life with the understanding that there are no guarantees.  To risk connection requires possible rejection.  To risk authenticity means that we may feel shame.  To risk love requires possible heartbreak.  There are no guarantees, but you can be assured of one thing: When you are courageous enough to be vulnerable, your life will be a daring adventure and at the very end of it, whether your heart is filled or broken, it will have expired from exposure.

Next week, we will turn our attention to the next step in the Transformational CycleResponsibility – and how it fuels the personal resiliency and accountability necessary for self-actualization.


  1. Theresa Ulyatt

    Beautifully said. Reminder of all that is good in the world and all that is real. Thank you for the wonderful quotes, too. Have lifted and will reuse.

  2. Dana

    I especially appreciate the statement “when we let go of who we think we should be, we create the space to actualize into what we can be”. This is not easy to do because many of us think the goal is to appear infallible to our peers/coworkers/bosses. In reality, transforming is a process and the sooner we accept that vulnerability is not a weakness but a necessary part of the process, the sooner we can embrace the changes in store for us. It’s easier said than done, and definitely a journey, but for me, the rewards far outweigh the fear I initially felt by taking the risks.

  3. Dr Will Sparks

    Dana, I couldn’t have said it better! So much of life is a paradox – being vulnerable is a sign of strength; letting go is the only way to stay connected; saying “I don’t know” is the only way to learn. When we are confident enough to let go (e.g., to be “right,” to be smart, to be who others think we should be, etc.) we actually create the opportunity to seize what and who we were meant to be all along.


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