The Connective Power of Vulnerability

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Two seemingly unconnected stories remind us of the bonding agent we call authenticity. And to be authentic, one must absolutely be vulnerable at times. Such is life. We ARE vulnerable. There’s no sense denying otherwise. Exposing vulnerabilities takes courage and it never feels comfortable. But rewards for the courageous can be rather large indeed.

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An Existential Conversation

My 14 year old son had a hockey tournament in New Hampshire this past weekend. We made the long drive with a good buddy and his son. 20 plus hours in a car over the span of a long weekend provides ample opportunity for good conversation. On the way home, fatigued and bored, as we hovered on the edge of consciousness, we fell into a particularly interesting discussion about life’s most pressing existential questions, catalyzed by the vastness of the starry sky above.

Anyone with a 14 year old son will be well-acquainted with what I call zombie dialogue (Webster’s Definition – One word answers spoken with a tinge of annoyance while slumped over a portable device). But last evening, at 8pm with 462km to our destination, my son became particularly engaged. He enthusiastically probed for answers to unanswerable questions, he offered his own thoughts and experiences and he exposed fears and vulnerabilities in a way I hadn’t seen since he was an innocent young boy.

A Deeply Connective Experience

At a rest stop near Rochester, my son, visibly excited, said to me “Dad that was the best conversation I’ve ever had. It was like….really….like deep”. I put my arm around his newly minted “man-shoulders” and gave him a squeeze on the back of his neck. What an awesomely connective experience between a father and son.

The experience was a rather visceral reminder about the connective power of deep, vulnerable conversation. If my son was so visibly lit up by this raw dialogue, then clearly adults can have the same experience…although perhaps in a slightly less novel way. But the fact remains that deep conversation creates a close bond between those who are willing to risk the vulnerability inherent in openness and authenticity.

Vulnerability in Business

Given that success in both sales and leadership are based on the ability to form deep relationships with others, I thought about the business application here as well. I wondered to myself; How many leaders are willing to risk a vulnerable conversation with their team members? How many salespeople can get out of their own way long enough to connect with their clients on a very basic human level?

The answer to both questions is undoubtedly very few.

Now, don’t get me wrong…I’m not suggesting that businesspeople awkwardly force a dialogue on the meaning of life. I simply believe we can get much further beneath the surface in our business conversations, and in the process, develop much deeper connections, both internally and externally which produce real re$ult$.

An Emotional Example

Let me give you an example of how one very raw, vulnerable and unforeseen conversation resulted in several relationships that have lasted over a decade.

During the very worst of the 2008 credit crisis, I had one particularly awful November day. It was a day when a number of heads were to roll in a “corporate restructuring” (Code for a day in which human livelihoods would be forever altered). I walked north from union station with an almost inexplicable heaviness in my heart. I loved my team but I was forced to let two of them go that day.

The HR rep came to my office at precisely 10:00 am. We then had a quick meeting and another quick phone call. Both consisted of more silence than dialogue as two of my friends and colleagues struggled to digest the indigestible. The HR rep left my office around 10:25. Still reeling from what had just happened, my phone rang 5 minutes later from an internal conference room. Before I picked up, I said to my assistant “This is likely it for me”. And it was.

The Breakdown

30 minutes later, an emotional wreck, I assembled my team into a large conference room. I told them everything that had happened that morning and, most importantly, that they were safe. But the emotion that had been building all day simply had to find an outlet. I broke down in front of my team feeling a combination of weakness and embarrassment at the same time. I held nothing back. I had too much respect for them to withhold “confidential” details. I told them how much I cared for them and that it had been a sincere privilege to lead them for the past 5 years. As I struggled to regain my composure, the silence was deep and the air was thick with emotion.

An Unexpected Outcome

Now here’s the interesting thing. Every one of the people who were in that room on that rainy November day continue to be friends and/or business contacts to this day. One of them is now the president of that same company. And I have done training engagements already with 2 others who are now leaders at competing businesses. The connection that happened in that raw, vulnerable conversation is difficult to measure..and here I was feeling foolish about my breakdown.

Too often, our leaders chose to exude a portrait of (over)confidence and unflappability at the expense of vulnerability to their teams. Salespeople spend far too much time posturing smarts, knowledge and competence at the expense of their basic humanness.

The World Has Changed

People can get any information they want from a quick Google search (or a DuckDuckGo search for uncensored information as I quickly learned on that long ride). And the proliferation of social media has only cemented the rarity of authenticity and vulnerability in our modern world. Paradoxically, in a world that has never been more connected, there are increasing numbers of people craving real connection.

Authenticity Always Wins

Only those leaders and salespeople willing to check their egos at the door and embrace their humanity, will truly resonate with others over the coming decade. Vulnerability has not always paid relationship dividends, especially in the workplace. But with a troubling rise in leaders more focused on power and recognition than core human values, the courageous ones willing to expose their basic humanity will truly set themselves apart and WIN.


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Brent C. Wagner