One of the best traits about Wonder Woman is her vulnerability. Growing up in the all-female fairytale island of beautiful Themyscira, Diana Prince was surrounded by powerful women who built physical strength and who also expressed their feelings, even when those emotions could potentially expose a perceived weakness. Once Diana was in the real world, whether she was in her Wonder Woman power ensemble or in street clothes, she demonstrated that you can show vulnerability and still lead.
How many times have you heard that being emotional at work is one of the greatest weaknesses professional women have? It’s ridiculous. When men show emotion, they tend to get praised as strong or excused as passionate. Women don’t believe there should be a double standard.
Kelly Fitzsimmons, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Custom Reality Services, and Miram Christof, partner at JustJump Marketing, show how they believe vulnerability may become one of the most important sources of strength and connection in a disrupter’s arsenal.
Show up as yourself even at the darkest of times.
When Fitzsimmons was 29 years old, she experienced a “massive, cataclysmic failure” of her second start-up, leaving her $5 million in debt (personally guaranteed) and feeling exposed. “I wanted the world to see me as smart, successful, credible — in that order. When my startup collapsed, my carefully architected persona blew apart,” says Fitzsimmons.
Disrupters tend to tout failure as the new success. As practitioners of iterative methods such as the Lean Start-Up’s Minimally Viable Product (MVP), the scientific method, and design thinking, failure truly does help disrupters test what will work and what will not in a product offering or business model. But when a big failure happens, the tone tends to shift.
Through a three-year program at the Center for Authentic Leadership, which Fitzsimmons started immediately following her company’s failure, her beliefs about vulnerability were altered forever. “Instead of creating a new improved persona, I chose to start showing up as me — warts and all. It’s been 16 years now, and I cannot imagine ever going back to that former self. That persona was a prison,” she says.
Fitzsimmons’ advice for transforming vulnerability into strength: create a safe environment for the people around you. “Sharing my life story creates the freedom for others to share theirs. We owe it to each other to create that room. I know this style doesn’t resonate with everyone. However, when it resonates it engenders a deep and lasting trust. I prefer to work on that level,” says Fitzsimmons.
Replace imposter syndrome with openness.
Disrupters tend to jump into problem solving with both feet despite previous experience. It’s brave, but it can also lead to imposter syndrome — that feeling where women don’t feel qualified or worthy enough to lead change. Rather than listen to the common ‘fake it until you make it’ advice that just perpetuates the symptoms of imposter syndrome, Miram Christof uses a different approach.
“We empower others to show their vulnerabilities and learn from each other when we show our vulnerability. Since nobody needs to ‘fake’ themselves and pretend to know things they don’t, the results are far superior,” says Christof. Rather than faking it, sharing your vulnerabilities makes room for your stakeholders and collaborators to step up and share their strengths. Your vulnerability becomes a vehicle to initiate engagement..
Christof’s advice for transforming vulnerability into strength: enable the next generation of female leaders to see their self-perceived weaknesses as an opportunity to redefine leader behavior and development. “When women in senior leadership positions show their vulnerability when they are in the room with younger, female associates, they open up the opportunity to learn from each other instead of being stunted by shame and fear” says Christof.
Check your ego at the door.
I have been fortunate in my professional and academic journeys to meet incredible women who have led disruption that has transformed industry and leadership. I went to business school during the days of business cases that elevated ruthless, money-driven, linear decision-makers like Chainsaw Al Dunlap and Jack Welch. It was also at a time where women believed they had to act like the ideal male executive in order to be successful. Many female executives wore pants to show strength and didn’t display family photos in their offices for fear of exposing vulnerability.
When I started studying women board directors in the highly male-dominated technology and life sciences industries, their insights taught me that being vulnerable was not about turning work into a self-help, tissue-infested experience. Instead it was about embracing that human part of leadership; where leaders embrace the thoughts and ideas of people around them, especially when it pushes them outside of their comfort zones.
My advice for transforming vulnerability into strength: always check your ego at the door. When your job is to disrupt the status quo, you don’t have time to let your ego get in the way. Spending energy on showing a brave face will result in not being able to focus on accelerating change.