Let’s Be Vulnerable: Unlearning Toxic Leadership with Brené Brown

by Senanee Abeyawickram

When women run for office, they win at the same rates as men.

But women face external and internal barriers that dissuade them from wanting to run. For example, due to internal barriers, women often struggle with confidence and the fear that they lack experience — in other words, ‘imposter syndrome’. This has led me to question if there is a gap in how society defines good leadership versus what it really is. Conventional wisdom suggests that good leaders are those who have solutions and make no mistakes — a kind of ‘superhero’. Masking our own imperfections, we embrace this definition, despite knowing that such a person cannot exist. Perhaps these expectations are what create the toxic environments that foster unapproachable, inauthentic, and sometimes discriminatory leaders.

As a young woman who has always been interested in politics, I have been asked, on several occasions, if I would ever run for office. My response has ranged from a hard ‘yes’ to a meek ‘maybe’. Somewhere between the encouraging ‘you should get involved’ and vexing ‘politics is not for women’ rhetoric, I have conjured some deep apprehensions within myself. Largely, this has been fueled by a fear that being in political leadership will force me to be inauthentic or strip me of my true identity. I wonder if it is possible to be successful as a politician while being true to myself.

Society’s perceptions of political leadership are embellished in notions of bravado, perfection, and prowess. In the face of stereotypes that men are more likely to fit this bill, women have to push even further if they want to prove themselves. Amid the complexity of these issues, I have been in awe of the simplicity with which Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, characterizes strong leadership. Her paradigm is a good starting point for hopeful young women, like myself, to unlearn the societal standards that deter us from wanting to run for office.

Brown introduces us to a more realistic and honest approach to leadership. In her TED talk, which has now gained over 40 million views, Brown talks about vulnerability, its power, and its importance in leadership. At first glance, leadership and vulnerability may seem counterintuitive. We are taught that vulnerability is an inherent weakness — and Brown’s definition of vulnerability, “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”, tends to reinforce that idea. Yet, her research posits that vulnerability is, in fact, a sign of strong leadership. In thinking about the intersection of vulnerability and leadership Brown asks us to ponder how the definition of vulnerability is similar to that of leadership: “the ability to be in uncertainty, take risks, and manage exposure.”

Key to her quest in realizing the power of vulnerability was a speech made by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910. He said:

“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.”

Brown pins the genealogy of the power of vulnerability to what Roosevelt refers to as “daring greatly”. In this frame of thinking, there is greater emphasis and value placed on leaders who admit to their mistakes, ask for help, take risks, and speak the truth. These behaviors reflect ‘authenticity’ and ‘humility’ — adjectives that aren’t as intimidating as ‘perfection’ and ‘prowess’. As hopeful young women leaders, what if we were asked: “Do you have the authenticity, courage, and humility it takes to run for office?” instead of “Do you have the power and prowess to run for office?”

Brown’s broader theories on vulnerability and leadership have been extrapolated into the world of business with many CEOs and managers implementing them in their workplaces. The world of politics is indeed another realm in which the intersection of vulnerability and leadership is highly potent, especially in the discourse on women in politics. We often complain that our leaders make fake promises, turn a blind eye to wrongdoings, or lack authenticity in general. Brown’s research is a nudge in the right direction for our generation to start creating a new culture — one that normalizes vulnerability, embraces it, and uses it as a tool to foster change. Brown questions, ‘has man ever created anything without having to be vulnerable?’ ‘No, because vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity and innovation.’

Dismantling the notion that vulnerability is a sign of weakness can be a useful tool of empowerment for women. But just because we know that vulnerability is a sign of strong leadership does not mean it is easy to be vulnerable. Brown says that, “for women vulnerability is hard because it pushes against the messages and expectations that fuel shame”. These are the same forces that make women in leadership feel like they need to talk, walk, and dress a certain way to be taken seriously.

Leaders who know how to be vulnerable recognize that it is not a weakness, that it is not something you should opt out of, and that it has boundaries. Brown informs us that vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability. This is why it is important to know when to be vulnerable by assessing the quality of what is being disclosed and the intention behind it. And if this is true, Brown is right in saying that “vulnerability is our most accurate way to measure courage.”

Leadership development coach, Kate Turner, shares similar views on this issue. In particular, when asked how we can debunk the myths surrounding vulnerability, she says that it is important to ‘catch people doing it right. If you see other people showing up in the right version of vulnerability, then comment on it and congratulate them. This is the way to start making a measurable change.’ Lucky for us, we can look to many recent examples of female politicians who have fearlessly embraced vulnerability.

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is lauded for how well she handled the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Christchurch. In addition to prescribing immediate policy measures, Ardern took on the role of ‘national healer’. She embraced and mourned alongside those who were affected, speaking openly about her own struggles. In that moment of collective weakness, she found strength for her country with courage, compassion, and her willingness to be vulnerable.

In the United States, sharing a personal story of sexual assault can be extremely frightening and risky for politicians. But that didn’t stop Senator Joni Ernst, Senator Martha McSally, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer from courageously participating in the #MeToo Movement and contributing towards its momentum. Their decisions empowered and set a powerful precedent for other survivors. Importantly, it reminded everyone across the political spectrum that the issue of sexual assault and harassment sees no political party — it is a nonpartisan issue that affects us all. The fact that Martha McSally offered one of the most powerful testimonies in the growing debate on Capitol Hill over how to adjudicate claims of sexual assault in the military shows that the outcome of her decision to be vulnerable was both powerful and tangible.

Similarly, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was caught in a moment of profound vulnerability with her infamous ‘misogyny speech’ in parliament. It was one of the first times the issue was addressed by a woman so passionately and unapologetically in a political forum. The response to her speech was mixed. But as Brown says, being a strong, vulnerable leader means ‘leaning in to the discomfort’. And that’s exactly what Gillard did. In the end, many women from around the world saw it as a defining moment for feminism in Australia.

The myth that vulnerability is a weakness has, in many ways, been debunked. It’s just that the negative connotation of the word has not been fully unpacked and realized by our leaders. At the same time, the stereotypes that plague perceptions of women make it even more difficult to talk about this subject without being labeled as ‘emotional’. But that does not mean we should silence ourselves. These exemplary women have shown us that it is okay to be vulnerable; we do not have to be perfect and politics does not have to change us. But, it seems, we might have to change politics.


Running Start Summer 2019 Intern Senanee Abeyawickrama is a political science and economics major at New York University Abu Dhabi, where she was awarded a full scholarship. At university, she has been an active member of the Model UN club having participated in numerous international conferences as both a delegate and chair. She has been involved in on-campus initiatives aimed at women’s leadership and empowerment including “Women in Business” and the “Girls’ Education Network”. Senanee has experience with research-based internships in her home country, Sri Lanka. One of her most rewarding experiences was when she worked with the gender team at the United Nations Population Fund on a project titled “Sexual Harassment of Women in Public Transport”. Although an introvert, Senanee enjoys meeting new people and engaging in debates over issues she cares about. After graduation, she hopes to get work experience in a policy-oriented field related to human rights. One day, Senanee hopes to run for local office and advocate for issues affecting women and children.