12/21 — Why and How to Lead with Confident Vulnerability

December 2020 / Notes from the Field

J. Matthias Bennett

“What do I truly need to be a happy human?” was the question I asked myself In the Fall of 2011, after having left Yale University where I worked for four years, and having left a marriage, after ten.

I then moved to an island in the Pacific Northwest and slept in a tent for a year to find out the answer. During that year, I also asked, “What connects the great leaders, across all time, space, and culture – but more importantly – what can each of us do to embody this sense of leadership for ourselves?”

It is from these questions that I received the principles of Leading with Confident Vulnerability.

Beyond a paradoxical statement, or regardless of whether you ever considered yourself a leader, if you have ever asked yourself “what do I really need to be happy?” or if you’re concerned about the radical changes happening in our health, communities, our environment, or in politics, this article is for you.

In the spring of 2013, I put these principles to the test, crowd-funded a trip from the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. to the Southwest, and made it across the desert to San Diego. Miraculous things happened to which I had no rational explanation.

Since then, I have been compelled to share these principles across the world, most recently in 30+ events for young entrepreneurs and major corporations in Morocco and Africa, over the span of nearly 3 years.

All that said, on a personal standpoint – I am still working on, building, and going through this process myself. I do not claim to be an “expert” and find myself going through the processes I am recommending here, daily.

The Cost of Living Defended:

If “Leading with Confident Vulnerability” is some kind of solution – what is the problem it’s solving or addressing? What happens when someone doesn’t either lead with confident vulnerability? Or fail to lead at all? The scope of the issue is so vast, and effects every living person on Earth – one way or the other.

We’ll look at this from two angles: From the standpoint of leaders who are clearly NOT leading with confident vulnerability, and then from those who are unlikely to self-identify as leaders.

“By my count, more business leaders have failed and derailed because of arrogance than any other character flaw.”

-Harvey Mackay

According to Vicki C. from the blog “Leadership Hooligans” the distinction between Confidence and Arrogance, is that Confidence is based on reality, valuing self and others whereas Arrogance is based on a self-inflated need for importance, that both thrives on the denigration of others – and instead of actually caring for others, the Arrogant leader cares more about how others see them.

What’s the Cost of Arrogance in Leadership?

According to Eric Schmit, Chairman of Google, and Google’s co-founder, for executives he screened out of executive positions because of their arrogance at Google, cost those individuals 500 Million dollars each, based on what that executive would have made after the company went public.

In a study of 953 CEOs, Antionette Rijsenbilt and Harry Commadeur found that organizations led by arrogant CEO’s tended to perform worse in the stock market and were more likely to be convicted of fraud.

Many other examples could be cited, including the arrogance of individual leaders, and collectively of financial institutions that caused the largest financial crash since the Great Depression in 2008.

So if the above examples are just some of the costs reflected by arrogant leaders NOT leading with confident vulnerability – what about those that don’t recognize themselves as leaders?

Instead of an over-inflated egoic need to appear superior, for the general population there appears to be a lack of being; a lack of knowing who they truly are, a vision for the future… How does this present? By being disconnected, addicted, and lonely. What is the cost of this?

The Cost of Americans Disconnected, Addicted, and Lonely:

  • The cost of loneliness increases the chance of pre-mature death by 26%.*
  • It has the same impact on the human body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.*
  • Major depressive disorder, suicide, and addiction cost the US $960 billion dollars annually. (NIH(2010) CDC (2015), NIH (2014))*Holt-Lunstad et al, Perspective on Psychological Science, 2015Granted, there have been many reasons given; a tightening of the economy, lack of social or familial support, the eroding of our environmental laws and hopelessness about the future of the planet, and many more. This can only have compounded with most of the world being on Lockdown from COVID-19.That said, despite seemingly overwhelming EXTERNAL reasons,
    is it possible that at its core, these challenges stem from the failure to discern, and to ask for, and receive, what one truly needs, to not just survive, but to thrive as a human on this planet today?

Understanding Vulnerability

Many people – especially arrogant leaders – could call vulnerability weakness, and therefore not want to show any emotional vulnerability at all.

There’s only one problem.

“Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.”

Brené Brown

Brené Brown is an Author, Speaker, and Researcher at the University of Houston. Her TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the top 5 most viewed TED talks in the world, with over 35 million views.

But rather, according to Brené, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, and courage.” And that it’s actually required for connection.

Think in your own life – who are you more likely to trust, and connect with: Someone who is completely defended – doesn’t need anything or anyone… or someone who actually vulnerably shares about who they really are, and struggles that they have gone through?

Think of someone famous that you really love or care about… Why do you care about them? Is it because they allow themselves to be truly seen? That they’ve allowed you to see who they truly are, in all their unique brilliance, instead of just keeping on a mask to conform to society‘s expectations?

For me this is the core part of vulnerability… the willingness to reveal Your authentic self – The willingness to tell the truth – tell your truth.

The willingness to put something at risk – wisely – in order to deepen your connection with one or more people. Such that you feel more authentically aligned with yourself for having shared.

“I would put Mathias’ definition of a True Leader on Page 1 of the Army Manual.”

Gregory Stone, U.S. Army Commander, Retired

Leading to an All-win Paradigm:

What is leadership at its core? at its root? Looking at a definition or the word can be a good place to start:

Lead (v.) – “to guide,” Old English lædan (transitive) “cause to go with oneself; march at the head of, go before as a guide, accompany and show the way; carry on; sprout forth, bring forth; pass (one’s life)… (etymonline.com)

The problem has been, that many people who call themselves leaders, throughout history, have not done this – instead of leading as a guide, they’ve led through coercion or threat of bodily force.

Instead of being the example they wish to see in the world, they have managed information and resources, in order to create a win for a few, at cost to the many.

This exemplifies the win/lose and way of thinking. While that may have supported a loose collection of tribes and Nation-States to survive up until now, it will not help us thrive – or even survive – through the massive challenges we now face as a human family.

The only paradigm and philosophy that can do so, is a commitment to an all-win paradigm.

What is an all-win paradigm? Quite simply its extending a circle of care – not just to your immediate family, tribe, or group, but to everyone and everything on the planet.

“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

Let’s face it – with the trend towards virtualization and digitization, “stuff” is not needed to have a thriving life for people – nearly any digital product can be replicated worldwide at a cost approaching zero.

There are limits to physical biosphere, but through creating closed-loop systems, and regenerative solutions, we can get everyone’s basic needs covered, and then some. There is no LACK of technology to do this… just the collective WILL to do it.

So how can we inspire the leaders of today to adopt this paradigm? Quite simply, we adopt it ourselves, and commit to building the skill of creating all-win solutions, for with ourselves, then our families, our communities, our cities, our nations. This is what we need to do to not just survive, but to thrive in the future.

As we commit to deeply engage in this, the current elected politicians, and those that we may elect, will have no choice to adopt this mindset and philosophy – IF they wish to continue to represent us.

“When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

What is required for an all-win? It’s a process – something far beyond this article… Where does it start? With the ability to truly listen to the “other”, and put yourself in their shoes, so you can get experientially what it’s like to be in, and inhabit their experience. As Oprah Winfrey has said: “Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

Leading Yourself First:

If what I’ve shared resonates with you, great. Do do you know who you are, what you have to contribute, and how you will contribute it? In order to effectively lead, you must know where you’re going if only just for yourself! You must be clear about who you are, and be authentic to that. This corresponds with the first part of the definition of being a True Leader – to Stand in your Signature Vibration – or said another way, to be authentically yourself, and having a Vision: Clarity about what you’ll do in the next next day, hour, week year, or lifetime.

You have to be clear about who you are, and stay true to that.

Because creating an all-win solution has to include yourself!

And you must know what a true win is for yourself, before you share that with others!

Are you clear what that win would look like for yourself, or not yet?

What would it look like to rise above distraction and mediocrity?

To have courage to clarify and claim why you’re here, and thus provide an example for others to do the same?

Leading with Confident Vulnerability in a Nutshell:

I’ve shared a lot so far around confidence, vulnerability, and leadership – what would that look like in a nutshell?

Consider the following, not as something set in stone outside of you, but rather something that point to a way of being that already exists within you…

What is “Leading with Confident Vulnerability?”

To boldly lead from your authentic truth, and guide while trusting in yourself, your family, your team, and the Universe, while wisely risking to reveal your true self, your human needs AND your deep soul desires, to your fellow humans.

In short, to boldly lead from your own authenticity and truth, and trust that you have what you need in every moment, to achieve your visions and dreams.

Ready to get Real and Authentic?

In politics, what this would look like is having more people in the political process to start to have real conversations with themselves first – then each other. For those deep in the system, they may find they need to take a break – a sabbatical from the toxic energy of negativity and power plays they have found themselves mired in.

A prerequisite for this work, is Authenticity, or at least a desire for Authenticity. If you’re not truly Authentic, how can anything you say have any value beyond half-truths, empty posturing, or borrowed desires?

If you’re not really, truly YOU – then who are you? When would NOW be a good time to commit to being your full, authentic self?

So, if you’re thinking “ok, so being authentic and touchy-feely is great – but what does that have to do with the real-world threats we’re experiencing as a Nation, right now?” Actually, it has everything to do with it.

Lack of being Vulnerable Exposes us to Real-World Threats:

Earlier on I covered a great definition from Brené Brown of vulnerability as as “Uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”

If you were to add another word to describe this kind of vulnerability, I would call it “emotional vulnerability.”

Beyond the massive financial, health, and human effects already share, the lack of emotional vulnerability has widespread additional and real-world effects on the inhabitants of nations and continents.

40% of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense (CNN, 2018) This was in 2018 – before COVID-19.

The paradox is that by an individual or community rejecting emotional vulnerability, as a form of “weakness”, I assert that that actually makes ALL of us, both individually AND collectively – MORE vulnerable to REAL threats, as opposed to keeping us “safe” from the “threats” of the perceived opinions of others.

How can this be? On the planet that we live, there’s no arguing that the number of extreme weather events are increasing. According to the U.N. extreme weather disasters hit 62 million people in 2018. (USA Today, Mar. 29. 2019)

The current set of 111 storms this decade has cost a total of more than $761 billion dollars. (NBC News, Sep. 15 2019)

So what’s a solution to help people deal with these massive threats? To start, it’s relationships:

In one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, researchers have followed a number of Harvard Graduates for nearly 80 years – they found that relationships played a crucial role in people living long and pleasant lives. “When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment, but the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” – Study Lead George Vaillant

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or brain surgeon to recognize that beyond the value of relationships of having a long and health life in NORMAL times, that the strength of your relationships could mean life or death in the times of crisis or emergency – like we’re living in RIGHT NOW.

So as you can see, there is strategic value both to your local community, and the national level, to engage in sharing emotional vulnerability to strengthen both individual and community bonds to increase our resiliency to the real-world threats that many of our communities are already now facing.

Now Is the Time:

On this planet on this time – none of us have the luxury of inauthenticity, or mediocrity. We are compelled – by the state of our planet, the state of our nation, – to stand up and really DO something – but that “something” cannot just be “anything” – it must be that which is in alignment with your Truest Truth. Your most courageous inspiration, that – to be clear, doesn’t harm anyone or anything else in the process.

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Howard Thurman

Consider that if you’re being inauthentic about who you truly are, you’re actually stealing…

“My great-grandchildren are really going to be proud that I was middle-manager for a soul-less corporation who sold out my real dream.” – Said no One Ever

Stealing the experience of your True Self – from both yourself and others. Stealing your True Self from the memory of your descendants.

Said no one ever: “My great-grandchildren are really going to be proud that I was a corrupt politician” or “My great-grandchildren are really going to be proud that I was middle-manager for a soul-less corporation who sold out my real dream.” Furthermore have you ever heard a statement from a corporation that expressed their desire to be soul-less corporation? Of course not! At some level, ALL organizations, All corporations want to be in service and of value in some way – even if it’s just for themselves.

NOW is the time for ALL humans, ALL organizations, ALL corporations to DEEPLY ASK, DEEPLY inquire – Who am I, really? Why am I really here?

NOW is the time for ruthless inquiry – and honest – even painful – reckoning with yourself.

And regardless of whatever you’ve done in the past, to deeply GET and KNOW – That each of us – Regardless of who you are, and what you may have done – have a valuable perspective and set of skills and tools that WE ALL need, as Charles Eisenstein says: “To create the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”

Are you finally ready to step courageously into a future, that while uncertain, holds the promise of being FULLY Authentic? Fully Alive? – OF being truly self-expressed with your fellow human?

To graciously ask for and receive first from yourself – and then from others – that which you require to not just survive – but to thrive?

What would living in such a world look like? Would it be easier to be yourself? Easier to create a project, business or dream? Easier or more difficult to give a hand up to those who really needed it? Easier to honestly and sincerely share from your heart about what matters most to you?

What does it mean for humans to create a culture in which Confident Vulnerability thrives? What would the world be like if everyone was an embodiment of Confident Vulnerability?

I believe they would have a level of clarity within themselves, and accurate situational awareness about the environment they find themselves in.

Unafraid to self-resource first, then reach out to others for support as necessary, to build solid long-lasting relationships that are not exclusive to only family or tribe, but include both family, tribe and the whole of the human family.

Why? Because we must create a world that works for EVERYONE. The all-win paradigm.

The alternative to having an all-win future, is not Win-Lose as in the past – but rather All-Lose.

The stark alternative, is that with exponential technology, it enables a smaller and smaller group of people to kill or injure more and more people with less and less money, time and resources. Whether on purpose, or accidentally, it could mean massive human losses, and easily lead to an extinction event.

But why would someone want to be a terrorist when they know that they – and their family – have more than enough, and they can live meaningful, creative, fully expressed lives?

What other choice do we have? To fully embrace an All-Win paradigm. To deeply and honestly engage, despite discomfort. The stakes are high – quite literally nothing less than the future of humankind, and this planet.

Lastly, is it possible that If EVERYONE embodied leading with Confident Vulnerability, that we could, soon, have an enlightened society?

You Are The Leaders of the Future / أنتم قادة المستقبل

When I spoke in Morocco for groups of young entrepreneurs, about leading with confident vulnerability, This is one of the things I shared: (أنتم قادة المستقبل: ‘antum qadat almustaqbal) : In English Meaning: You are the leaders of the future.

If you’re reading – wherever in the planet you are – including the US, Africa, or India – You are either leaders of the future, OR you are raising and caring for the leaders of the future.

Regardless of wherever you are, or whoever you are, it is not too late for you to make a difference. Recently, I was gifted a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and it deeply resonated with me. Here is one passage that stood out, as an additional reason to engage:

अिवनािश तु तिद्विद्ध येन सवर्िमदं ततम् |


(avināśhi tu tadviddhi yena sarvam idaṁ tatam
vināśham avyayasyāsya na kaśhchit kartum arhati

The Spirit Atma by which all this universe is pervaded, is indestructible. No one can destroy the imperishable Spirit.

Chapter 2 Sankhya Yoga Verse 17

Your Soul – your Atma – is indestructible. But instead of this truth empowering and enabling you to go into battle like King Arjuna, let it give you the courage to embrace the parts of yourself that may feel unloved, and unworthy.

Then, as a leader, to be courageous enough to create a circle of safety for ALL People, ALL beings, and therefore transcend the old ways of thinking, transcend the destruction of Earth’s resources and, and embrace a thriving future for all.

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