“The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.
When the barrier is our belief about vulnerability, the question becomes: ‘Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can’t control the outcome?’
When the barrier to vulnerability is about safety, the question becomes: ‘Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen?’
—Dr. Brené Brown
I remember hearing these words from Brené when I was selected to be a part of her inaugural Dare to Lead circle of corporate coaches in 2018. And, as I sat with the other 50 global leaders, I remember thinking this: “These empowering words make us want to be vulnerable, but the true act of being vulnerable can feel terrifying.”
Most of us (me included) were raised to believe “vulnerability” is a weakness. That it literally means being open and/or exposed to the potential of attack or harm, physically or emotionally. Yikes. It’s no wonder it’s so difficult for so many of us.
In my experience over the last 20 years as a coach, I have found the most impactful moments to be the ones where we give ourselves permission to open up and become vulnerable. Why? The act of opening up to others allows us to see one another for who we truly are. And it allows for transformational change.
So, what does it take to be truly vulnerable in a coaching environment? I believe it takes humility and a willingness to be Fearless.
An Opportunity for Vulnerability
Fearless. What does that word mean to you? To Keri Baldinger, VP Procurement Operations at Highmark Health, this word came to define the outcome of the EDGE PEER group coaching experience for her.
As a child, she had been exposed to physical, emotional, and drug abuse. She thought if she didn’t make any noise and behaved perfectly, there would be no problems. As a nine-year-old, she tried to keep a perfect household—cooking, cleaning, and caring for her five-year-old sister—all the while feeling like she was walking on broken glass. So, to stay safe, Keri learned to make herself invisible, with no voice.
As she became a successful and driven business leader, she sensed that being heard was important to her happiness. She had never invested the time to focus on understanding herself, to self-reflect on why she was the way she was. She didn’t understand why she gravitated to certain types of people or constantly went around saying she was “sorry”.
Then she participated in one of the opening activities at one of my EDGE group coaching circle sessions. It’s called I Am From History. In this exercise, cohort members are given the space to practice vulnerability as they explore the stories they have written about themselves, both personally and professionally. The stories we live as our truth.
These Histories often describe their backgrounds, family influences, or other shaping experiences, but it’s up to each participant how much or how little to write, if they decide to go one step further and share them out loud together. Over the years, I’ve seen people write bulleted lists, full paragraphs, even poems and raps!
After sensing she was in a safe space in her circle, Keri took the opportunity to reflect on and, for the first time, wrap words around her painful childhood experiences in a professional setting. And as we coaches know, language is generative. What we speak, we see in our mind’s eye. And what we see, we cannot unsee.
In doing this, Keri discovered more about what made her who she is, from where she got her drive, and how her perfectionistic tendencies took root. As she dug deep over the course of the next nine months of the EDGE group coaching experience, she questioned aspects of her current life and choices that she had never reflected on before.
Keri made this internal journey of self-reflection on her own (coaches are not therapists!), yet it was a journey inspired by what she learned within her EDGE PEER coaching circle. She realized her childhood had profoundly shaped her and instilled a need to feel valued and heard, but she never made the connection to how her childhood impacted her life and career. Yet each and every time she gave herself permission to vulnerably share part of her story with her circle, she became, as she describes it, more fearless.
This new perspective paved the way for her to intentionally develop her leadership brand, purpose, and vision. She even applied her new fearless perspective to conduct a 1:1 Career Interview with David Holmberg, CEO of Highmark Health.
This optional part of the PEER Group Coaching Framework gives members the opportunity to reach up and engage with top leaders. They learn from those leaders and begin to plant authentic seeds for organic mentoring and sponsorship relationships to advance their careers.
When I told her cohort they could choose anyone from the company to interview, she immediately thought fearlessly and asked, Why not my CEO?
Because she acted courageously, Keri demonstrated her personal brand to one of the most important people in the company. In addition, the experience reaffirmed why Keri chose to stay at Highmark—to be guided by an inspirational leader with a strategic direction she could embrace.
More than six years later, Keri continues to lean into this fearless approach that grew out of her being vulnerable in her group-coaching setting. Through the PEER group coaching experience, Keri defined what is truly important to her and why. It helped her feel more empowered by her options. It allowed her to discover what she was willing to accept, and, just as importantly, what she was not. Not only did she get promoted then, but she has continued to advance into multiple new positions since.
Now Keri seeks out opportunities to be fearless, to have the courage to speak up with her own voice, and to step up when perhaps others cannot or will not.
It is our job as a people leader to create an environment in which our team members can feel safe to share. I call this Building the Container.
It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of vulnerability when it comes to achieving higher levels of personal and professional success. It all starts with the courage to take a risk and share our story—past, present, and hope for our future selves.
When what is shared gets validated, it promotes an environment of support and encouragement. On the other hand, vulnerability without validation and empathy can cause harm. This is why the Container that we create in our teams and departments is so critical. The result is a place where it is safe to talk openly and honestly—that’s when human potential can really take off.
Everything depends on the level of vulnerability people are willing to show. Only when we give ourselves permission to be vulnerable, can we challenge the stories we are writing and step into purposeful self-awareness and growth.
Here in this space of embracing imperfection, we can explore negative self-talk and push back on the inner critic that keeps us feeling small and stuck. We allow ourselves to risk judgment in sharing messy insights together as peers and being open to others’ perspectives on it.
As I have learned as a two-time entrepreneur, there is no innovation without vulnerability! We cannot iterate and choose new actions until we step forward—as a beginning, authentically acknowledge what is not working well, and make new choices. It is this vulnerability that fosters the intimacy needed to build dynamic, connecting, and collaborative relationships in a truly sustainable way.
But how do we overcome the barriers that keep a group of people from opening up? Vulnerability often feels scary, revealing, and exposing. Talking about yourself can feel fraught with peril, especially with (gulp) work colleagues—and it can be, if you don’t know what you’re doing. But the truth is, without vulnerability, human potential is limited.
Team building or group coaching can fail—quite spectacularly—if we do not purposefully create a safe space for success, because people must feel empowered to take what they perceive to be a huge risk—the risk of being judged.
When we see a circle member step into the light and share something important to them, we cannot help but feel touched by the common humanity. Me too, our hearts say. Me too. And the truth is, we think we most fear the judgment of others, but in reality, no one judges us more harshly than we judge ourselves.
As adults, we have become so used to hearing that harsh judgment in our own heads and hearts, we just assume others will do the same or worse. So we “armor up,” as Brené Brown calls it. But as I said earlier, vulnerability begets vulnerability.
One by one, each person is inspired by the one who spoke before them, each becoming more and more comfortable sharing their personal and professional selves. We truly let ourselves be seen by contributing in a way that is transparent with one another and without judgment.
It is such a beautiful experience to witness.
If you’re interested in learning more about the role vulnerability plays in team building and group coaching experiences, I recommend you read my book, The PEER Revolution: Group Coaching that Ignites the Power of People.