By: Stuart White 14-11-2019

Categories:HRMC Articles written by Managing Director, Stuart White,


‘Courage is about exposing yourself to being vulnerable.'

Consider that for a moment.  I know it sounds like a complete contradiction - I have been wrestling with this concept myself recently. I was going through a tough time and during a conversation with my daughter she helped me reframe a belief long held; that admitting to being vulnerable was a weakness.

In the face of fear, despair and uncertainty she was asking me to be open about my vulnerability. Just the idea made my face grimace, my jaw clench and feel sick to my stomach. You see I don’t like showing a chink in my mental armour- who does?  My mind tells me it is weak, unattractive, inappropriate which swiftly translates to I am weak, unattractive and inappropriate. From years of conditioning (and that’s another story) I have learned that vulnerability is something to be ignored, suppressed or obliterated - something to fear.  In my world vulnerability will cost you dearly.

Like most I don’t want to be vulnerable and I don’t want anyone to see me as such.   Maybe it’s a guy thing.

My daughter views it very differently. “You have got it all wrong, Dad”, she said.  “It’s exactly because it is so hard, because it is so horrible and because of the way that it makes you feel and the perceived stakes are so high –this is why it takes bravery to be vulnerable.  No one likes feeling vulnerable, no one wants to show that side of themselves, its shitty but that’s why it’s courageous to open up to all of it.”

My immediate reaction was to dismiss this 23-year-old psychology/kinesiology student, until I realised she was right. If I would rather die in a ditch than show my vulnerability, then revealing it must be brave. It’s easy to hide how you feel, when that feeling is not positive about yourself, but I realised for the first time that when I lay my vulnerability on the line, lower my mask and connect authentically—from the heart, not just the head I am living a life, not playing a role.

Life is scary and the one place that is likely to show up is in leadership. When you accept a leadership position you are accepting the condition of feeling uncomfortable and you should accept that you will be vulnerable.  Otherwise risk-taking and big decision-making would be easy.

As a leader you must face competition, stretch targets, face pressure, resolve conflicts & disagreements, counter resistance, make bold and often unpopular decisions, stand your ground in the boardroom, face negative manoeuvring, sabotage - the list goes on but to sum up, you are ultimately accountable.

The dictionary definition of courage is “the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear’. Aristotle called it ‘the first human virtue, because it makes all the other virtues possible’. But as it is the most important human virtue, it is clearly also the most important business virtue, for a Leader.

You can’t successfully run a business without courage. To be at the head you have to drive progress and whilst you may think that this is a positive activity - and it is - there will be forces against you which will require mental resolve. People will resist, try to trip you up or rip you off, place obstacles will be in your way, there will be bumps in the roads -  potholes, even -  and that’s all before you have even opened your morning emails.  

Leadership withers in the absence of courage. Change and innovation require shaking everything up and creating a new order:  Sales requires rejection after rejection and hundreds of failures:   A new competitor comes into the market offering better and cheaper products than you and you won’t know what to do: Your staff are miserably unhappy and productivity is down...this is hard stuff that requires the Right Stuff and being the comeback king or queen takes bottle.  I don’t mean showing up looking cool in your image armour - that’s not courageous leading, that is hiding and acting and your staff won’t connect with that. 

Courage is acting in the face of fear. Courage is about working with what you have with confidence even though you don’t know the outcome. Courage is belief in self and in your capabilities to work through problems with no certainties but the right attitude of boldness and principles – that True North which guides you when pressure mounts.  Leaders act with vulnerability – life, and business, is a gamble.

Brene Brown, the undisputed leader in the vulnerability and courage field argued “Leaders must display vulnerability not coolness.  Acting cool is the neurological equivalent of wearing a straight jacket.  We have been taught wrong. Being brave is not about being cool, being tough - it is about being vulnerable.” 

The word courage comes from the Latin ‘coeur’, meaning heart. Being courageous means sharing who you are with all. As Browne says, it is a myth that vulnerability can be equated to weakness. It is the opposite, if you turn up when you do not know the outcome, that is brave and the epitome of vulnerable.

But perhaps the greatest courage of all comes from being vulnerable with your children, accepting their counsel and guidance even when your head is saying ‘she is still a child, vulnerable herself’.  

As Wordsworth said, ‘The child is father to the man’, It takes an awful lot of courage to admit he may be right.