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The Gift of Vulnerability: The Art of Becoming Fully Human


“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter.
And those who matter don’t mind.”  

~ Dr. Seuss

Inspiration from a widely known author of children’s books…

And so much easier said than done!

According to Abraham Maslow, who developed the hierarchy of human needs, the highest need of mankind is to “become fully human.”  But what does it mean to be fully human?

Paraphrasing and quoting from the work of Jean Vanier, Canadian philosopher and theologian, becoming fully human lies at the point of tension between the pressure to achieve control and our longing to find ways to live at peace with our own and others’ imperfections.  In short, “people really blossom when they are welcomed as they are, with their gifts and their weaknesses together”, striving to grow towards freedom, serving others in spite of their imperfections.

In his four decades of work, Vanier was struck by “how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”  Imperfections are seen by Vanier as both gifts and opportunities — drawing people closer together, moving others to give more of themselves — to open up and reveal their own shortcomings.  In this opening, a space is created to discover our common humanity.

Think about that.  People are more closely drawn together when you share your weaknesses over your successes.  Revealing shortcomings opens us up to the discovery of our common humanity.  And yet we live in a culture where creating supportive spaces for people to come together across differences is not the norm – especially in business.  Instead we imagine ourselves as somehow superior or separate from one another and those we serve.  

Every person is someone’s child.  And every child – “every person needs to know that they are a source of joy.”  Every person needs to be celebrated simply because she exists.  It is only through this kind of profound acceptance that “our negative, broken self-images can be transformed” to love, forgiveness and greater freedom.  

“Meaningful fulfillment emerges as we craft relationships across difference.”  This is how unity can be fostered amongst diverse people.  Our instincts are to judge, fear and exclude those who are different.  But what if we could do the opposite?  What if we could instead enrich our imagination by learning to “live with the hidden lessons of the dissonance that diversity occasions?”  Vanier holds the conviction that love is what can make power generative or degenerative.  “We are not called to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.”

Everyone’s gifts have transformative effects on others. In bringing one’s strong and weak sides together, one learns that compassion and tenderness are as important as power and knowledge.  In acknowledging your own imperfections, you can learn to live with great humility in the face of vulnerability.  “It is only when we stand up, with all our failings and sufferings, and try to support others rather than withdraw into ourselves, that we can fully live a life of community.”

∞ ∞ ∞

When I consider Vanier’s concepts and try to shape them into one single theme, that theme is: The Gift of Vulnerability.  And when I think of vulnerability, I cannot help but think of Dr. Brene Brown – the “guru of vulnerability” in my humble opinion.  In the words of Dr. Brown, “owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.  Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy.”  

And isn’t that what we tend to do in business – forego belonging, joy and meaning?  And if that is predominantly true, how can we renew organizations to create systems – organizational structures – where being human is not only accepted but modelled?

Being vulnerable does not mean you are being weak.  “Within vulnerability lie the seeds of greatness.”  To any business, relationship is fundamental – no mission can be served – no goals can be reached without it.  “Vulnerability is the glue that binds relationships together.”

Leaders are people who take accountability for their own growth and development as well as the growth and development of others.  As leaders, we must be the living example of the change we are trying to create if we are to help others live into their fullest potential.  This means that we need to model all of the things – including vulnerability – which we want to see in the people on our teams.  And in the case of vulnerability, if we want to drive out fear in any system – then we need to create a safe space for and demonstrate through our own actions and behaviors that it is acceptable and necessary to be vulnerable.

Entrepreneurs know all too well about vulnerability and know what it means to fail fast and fail often.  In fact, this very mantra is part of Generon’s U-Process.

To “be who you are” and “say what you feel” takes immense courage.  It necessitates vulnerability.  It requires getting to the heart of what it means to be fully human and operating from that place.  As in the marshmallows depicted above, we all have a different color at the center.  To get there, we need to melt away the surface layers.  It is only then can we can truly discover what’s at the core.  

Creating a culture where being human is accepted and modelled and where leaders authentically take accountability for the growth and development of their employees will mean creating a culture of engagement – where work is humanized; relationship is valued; and where vulnerability is not seen as weak or exposed – but instead viewed as a path towards greatness.  This culture needs to be a “container” of safety – one that not only allows for mistakes but allows people to feel safe in making them – an environment where employees are not afraid to ask for help or try new things.  As a prerequisite to this, you need to assess your company’s leadership style in order to create a foundation that supports vulnerability.  It takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable; and if you already have a system where fear is rampant, you can hardly expect that people will trust that they can expose the color of their center.  

To create a system where people feel safe to show up and be seen will take time, effort and resources; but the gifts received will far out-weigh the risks.

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