Vulnerability and leadership

by Aline Rossin
Sep 16th, 2021 » 2min (Leadership)

Brené Brown, an American researcher who has released several books as a result of her research about human emotions and relationships, begins one of these books with part of the speech delivered by Theodore Roosevelt's in 1910 entitled "The man in the arena”, which says:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

This book changed my life. I found it in a bookstore at the airport in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, on my way back from the most transforming experience I have ever had. I went to the African continent for the first time in 2015 to do a yoga training course in a social project, where the teachers who trained me were people previously marginalized and cut off from society. More than coming back as a yoga teacher, I came back with my face dirty with dust and sweat, as it says in the speech. And the experience of getting your face dirty with sweat, blood, and dust takes you to a place you can't go back to.

Between yoga postures and many hours of practical and theoretical classes, I had access to a place that until then I hadn’t known. A place inside myself that I needed to go so far away to access and get to know. A place called vulnerability.

In a joint exercise with more than 50 aspiring yoga teachers, we had the challenge to stand up in front of everyone there and speak on the microphone about something that we would commit to from then on. And my phrase was: I am strong, and I commit to embracing and practicing vulnerability in my life.

I still didn't have much clarity of what that was and meant, but it was the first time I put strength and vulnerability in the same sentence. Until then, I used to understand them as opposing concepts.

When I arrived at the airport to go back home, I came across the book "Daring Greatly: how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead" (in Portuguese A Coragem de ser Imperfeito), Brené Brown's second book. I read the entire book in the 14 hours of travel between Nairobi and São Paulo and was shocked by the synchronicity between my statement days before and the subject addressed in the book.

The excerpt from the speech I brought above is the beginning of this book. I will highlight two parts of it here. 

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming.”

The beauty of error and wholeness being related here brings me to reflect on how to lead. How to lead and make decisions on a daily basis without making mistakes? Impossible! But you got to be "actually in the arena of life". If the dive is deep, genuine and with real interest in transformation and surrender, there is no way there won't be mistakes and disappointments. And this is beautiful, human and very liberating for me, and maybe it can also be for many other women and men who occupy leadership positions.  

 “...but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly”

Enthusiasm and great devotions. Without these there is no leadership. Because for me, leadership is love. It is surrender; it is listening. And to fail by daring greatly is one of the most beautiful and vulnerable things that we can absorb in our hearts to be good leaders, parents, friends, partners in life and work.

Who would have dared to say in a corporate environment decades ago (or days in some cases) that words like failure and grandstanding could be part of the same sentence? The rule for those in the leadership of a company was (or is) never to fail, to know everything, to direct correctly all the time. 

But how to do this and at the same time get dust, blood and sweat on your face? For me, these are two mutually exclusive things. You can't. You are either actually in the arena and in the worst case you fail by daring greatly, or you are not connected to your essence as a woman, as a man, as a human being. 

The change of perspective that this story brought to me was radical. I didn't know it yet, when I committed myself in front of 50 strangers to accept my vulnerability, how much it would change the way I see myself and place myself in the world as a woman, a daughter, a friend, a teacher, a sister, and a company leader.

Today, I still don't know much, but I know that the path I chose was to be vulnerable, to enter the arena to get dirty and to have with me those who want the same thing. And this definitely has nothing to do with working more than 8 hours a day or staying up all night working, it has to do with being human while working, it has to do with allowing emotions to come in the middle of a meeting, a presentation, a conversation, a difficult decision. It's about allowing ourselves, while at work, to be people with hearts who happen to think, and not the other way around. 

As Brené Brown says, "we are emotional beings who reasonate, and not the other way around."