1. Professional Development

Building Deeper Understandings (Series): The Cycle Of Vulnerability

“Employees, as well as leaders, long for certainty.  Formerly, securing a position in an organization meant getting employment for a lifetime.  This is no longer true.  As organizations face more challenges than ever before, employees face more uncertainty, particularly about the security of their jobs.  As a consequence, they experience additional stress as well as feelings of isolation.  In struggling to find a new vision, they become frustrated and often panic.  What they should do instead is learn to tolerate and respect the discomfort of their uncertainty and thereby unleash their creativity in the interests of organizational change.”  -Porter O’Grady and Mallach via Quantum Leadership: Building Better Partnerships for Sustainable Health

We can ill-afford to take veneer approaches to the thinking, ideas, learnings, strategies, concepts, systems, that we believe will be necessary as leadership understandings and skillsets in creating momentum and moving our educational organizations into the future in a more relevant, more transparent, more sustainable, and more innovative manner.

  • We cannot tell people to be creative and believe it will just happen…
  • We cannot tell people to be innovative and believe it will just happen…
  • We cannot tell people to be vulnerable and believe it will just happen…
  • We cannot tell people that we are going to create capacity and believe it will just happen…

And yet, very often, that is just what we do.

As leaders and learners, we need to create much deeper and more transparent understandings of vital concepts that will allow us to create and build the spaces and environments, as well as the learnings and understandings, that will allow us to actually move towards the engagement of those ideas and concepts in ways that not only deepen our understandings, but allow for the necessary and strategic action that leads towards the relevant change, improved outcomes, and increased value for individuals and the organization that create and scale positive momentum.  Especially, if we have determined those ideas, learnings and understandings to be both important and vital to our future success.

If this is to happen, we have to become not only much more strategic and intentional, but much more curious and inquisitive, both as individuals and organizations.  It is not an either/or proposition, as if individuals are not learning, then the organization is, for the most part, not learning, and it is in our willingness to stay curious and inquisitive that learning engages and occurs, both at an individual and an organizational level.  For, it is in that willingness to learn, to grapple with new ideas and thinking, that the boundaries of the known are expanded and capacity is created across the organization.

For, in the end, we will continue to struggle to engage and scale what we do not understand.

Just as creativity is not best initiated by continuing to tell people to just “be creative,” either is approaching the idea of risk and risk-taking with wide-eyed abandon.  And since risk will be required of all leaders and organizations in both the present and the future, it is in realizing that taking a risk is also a matter of being intentional, being strategic, and understanding that some form of failure is always inherent in the risk.  Which deepens the understanding that in the knowing that the possibility of failure exists does not exonerate us from the need for risk to be taken, but being open to approaching risk in a much more intentional manner and approach the risk strategically in ways that can mitigate the risk to much lower and acceptable levels.  It is also in determining proactively in how to respond if failure occurs, both individually and organizationally, and how the most important residue of that failure, the learning, will be gleaned from the process to determine the “learning gap” from where you are and where you wanted to be and to best determine next steps in moving forward.

Risk not, want not.

For, we will be best served by the ability and manner in which we facilitate our way forward and how we engage our people and organizations in the design the future, which will require greater clarity and a more coherent and transparent approach to how communication occurs and positively spreads between individuals and across our organizations.  Especially in a time when we are shifting from more technical problems to more and more adaptive challenges, when leaders can no longer have all the answers, in a time when the quality of our questions ultimately leads to the effectiveness of our solutions.

Which means that today’s leaders must get much more comfortable with growing levels of uncertainty and not-knowing, and the deep feelings of vulnerability, openness, and even risk that the unknown ultimately has the ability to create.

As Brene Brown shares, “I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad.  My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few.”  For which she adds, “Vulnerability here does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It means replacing “professional distance and cool” with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.  Opportunities for vulnerability present themselves to us at work every day.  More importantly, Brown describes vulnerability and authenticity as lying at the root of human connection.  And human connection is often dramatically missing from workplaces.”

Which makes vulnerability less of a feeling and more of a leadership skillset for today’s leaders, especially as Harvard Business Review puts forth the, “alarming fact that 70% of employees are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work.  As a consequence, they are “less emotionally connected” and also “less likely to be productive.”

Vulnerability is owning up to the very idea that we can’t know it all, we can’t, don’t and won’t have all the answers, or will be able to fix every problem.  Which can be very conflicting for a large portion of leaders.  It is also in recognizing that there is no shame in that, rather it serves in the first step of owning our own willingness to grow, to evolve, and to continue to learn and adapt in a much more authentic manner.

Vulnerability, especially for today’s modern leaders serves as part of a lifelong journey to growing and evolving, as well as serving as necessary and needed skillset and competency.  As Porter O’Grady and Mallach share in Quantum Leadership, there are “seven cycles” to this journey of vulnerability for leaders, which would include the following:

Becoming Vulnerable – requires today’s leaders to become much more comfortable in dealing with and residing in the uncertainty and unknowns that exist in today’s world and moving today’s organizations forward into the future.  It is in understanding your strengths, as well as your weaknesses, and the limits of your capacity and how to not only be aware of those limitations, but not allow those limitations to hinder or diminish your ability and effectiveness as a leader.  Realizing that we all have limitations and that there is no roadmap for the future, necessarily invites in a sense of vulnerability, which today’s effective leaders understand and learn to work effectively with that tension that exists between knowing and not-knowing.

Taking Risks – today’s individuals and organizations can ill-afford to not engage in creative and innovative thinking, but it is also in understanding that creative and innovative thinking leads to ideas that will ultimately require taking a risk.  Inability to take a risk, will ultimately diminish the creative and innovative thinking that needs to occur in organizations for a better approach to designing their future and moving forward.  However, to be effective, today’s leaders must also determine how to effectively approach and engage in risk-taking that minimizes the possible negative effects or outcomes on individuals and the organization that risk can create.  Which requires leaders to take a much more proactive and less reactive stance, both in the engagement of the risk as well as the final response to the outcome of the risk.  As Porter O’Grady and Mallach share, “Risk-disposed leaders motivate others by showing what can be done, not merely by sermonizing about opportunities. They also need to exhibit candor and vulnerability, to identify value in marginally successful efforts, and to allow others to take risks and experience success and failure.”

Stretching One’s Capacity – every individual and organization has boundaries, those borders where the known and unknown intersect.  A place where both peril and possibility co-mingle.  It is in moving past those boundaries, in stepping out into the unknown, that we engage new learnings, new ideas, new thinking, in which new capacities are built, allowing for us to not only stretch beyond our current individual and organizational capacity, but past those borders that confine current capacity.

Living the New Reality – too often, especially in the midst of the uncertainty, unknowns, and even chaos that surrounds any type of change or transformation, we find individuals and organizations recoiling back to the safety and comfortableness of the known.  Even when the known can be perilous to creating a more relevant future.  Allowing individuals and the organization to gain a handle on this tension created by the change or transformation, to provide some sense of equilibrium in response to the disequilibrium created by the shift, can help to avoid this ongoing recoil to the status quo.  Which is why it is vitally important that leaders create an environment where individuals and the organization can feel safe to “adjust” to the disequilibrium and tension created from this change or transformational initiative.  Which includes opportunities for experimental, discovery learning to be engaged, as well as space to share what is working and/or not working.  As Porter O’Grady and Mallach add, leaders must be able to “encourage vulnerable behaviors,” “accept that unanticipated outcomes will occur, both positive and negative,” and work towards “coaching others to sustain the new knowledge,” while keeping individuals, teams, and the organization focused on the “original purpose.”

Evaluating the Results – in any transformation, we often allow our mental models of the past to leverage too much bearing on the change in the present.  Our mental models can inhibit our ability to frame our outcomes in ways that are more relevant for the future, often keeping them grounded in our past.  If we are going to move towards the vulnerability of more creative and innovative thinking and ideas to push new possibilities, then we often have to be just as creative and innovative in the way that we determine our metrics and what results and outcomes we are aiming to achieve.  As a leader, seeing an outcome, especially when it is less than expected, as an opportunity, a learning gap, allows individuals and the organization to not only find safety in taking risks, but to see the outcomes of those risks as opportunities for new learning.  Especially if we are going to make better decisions on next steps into the future, while realizing that this process is an ongoing iterative cycle of ongoing discovery and learning.

Cherishing the New Knowledge Gained – as with any learning cycle, we often step out of the cycle either too soon or before the cycle has run its course, thereby limiting the opportunities for learning from both the anticipated and unanticipated results.  Utilizing the learning gleaned from the cycle to better determine next steps in staying the course or determining a needed pivot to close the current gap between the present reality and the outcomes of the original aim.  In going through this cycle, the vulnerability to being open allows new learning to be gained from each cycle outcome, allowing our individual and organizational boundaries to be stretched farther and further through this iterative cycle, pushing individuals and the organization beyond the current level of the known.

Begin the Cycle Again – as Porter O’Grady and Mallach put forth, “at the end of the vulnerability cycle, the challenge is to identify what was valuable and what was problematic and begin the process again with the next opportunity or challenge.  Repeating positive efforts is as important as avoiding negative results.”  Which is foundational towards the becoming of a true and authentic learning organization, rather than continuing the fallacy of acting as a knowing organization.

It is in this ability to remain vulnerable in the face of the growing complexity, uncertainty and unknowns we face as leaders and as organizations, that we allow for the creative and innovative thinking that engages the experimental and discovery learning that pushes us and our organizations to new levels of capacity, allowing us to stretch beyond the current borders of the known.

“Frustration and fear typically fuel the search for certainty, a search that wastes significant time and effort.  In any organization, situations and relationships are usually too complex to be predictable, and therefore a degree of uncertainty is unavoidable.  If fear of the unknown is allowed to rule, the result is organizational inertia and continued reliance on past practices.  Despite believing in the need for change or in the savings to be gained from a new technology, leaders place too much emphasis on the failure of past innovations and sit back and do nothing.”

“By admitting you are uncertain and not all-knowing, by being willing to put aside long-standing mental models, you open yourself to the possibility of incredible growth and rewards.”  – Porter O’Grady and Mallach via Quantum Leadership: Building Better Partnerships for Sustainable Health

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