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Vulnerable Leadership in Schools

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

Vulnerability is the single most important word in educational leadership today. To lead with any influence or impact, we must let down the guard. Open up. Expose. To lead with vulnerability requires us to be human; and humans, unlike perfection, experience suffering.

Why does our educational landscape require vulnerability of its leaders? In the most basic sense, a leader is there for their people. They are there to support and serve.

Our people are hurting. From teachers to students, grandparents to classroom aides, bus drivers to special education directors--we are hurting. I would argue we have been hurting in our country perhaps since its inception, and this is a reality we must collectively face if we are going to repair the pain.

Vulnerability is found in each of us, every single day of our lives. Often associated with weakness, lack, or instability, it’s a term that up until recently many of us avoided like the plague. In a way, to admit our vulnerabilities feels (and felt like) self-inflicted harm. An opening-up of a wound. A stripping down of our confidence and inner-selves. A divulgence.

Leading shame researcher and author Brene Brown defines vulnerability as, “uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure.” Are these three traits apparent in today’s educational landscape? Absolutely! Do we know what to do with them?

Absolutely not.

So, just exactly how does vulnerability show up? When we experience hurt and pain around a conversation or interaction. When we harm ourselves with shaming self-talk or behavior. When we think we’re not good enough at any number of aspects of our lives--but we feel afraid to share these insecurities, to name them, or talk about them. When fear takes over and we stop believing that we can fix a situation. When we turn to other coping mechanisms and addictions to numb the pain. When we pour ourselves into our work to prove our value, and then neglect our closest relationships in the process. When we feel nervous in a meeting and sit quietly, afraid to say the wrong thing. When we refuse to raise our hands or join the conversation. When we’re picked last for basketball. When no one responds to our texts. When we feel we have no one to text to begin with.

Vulnerability manifests itself in a variety of ways in both children and adults. For years now, American society has tried to brand itself as a fearless, capable, courageous entity. It’s used the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” image to convince us that vulnerability has no place in the process towards progress. If you’re hurt, suck it up buttercup and keep moving on. If not, you’ll be left behind.

In reality, real courage, “is born out of vulnerability, not strength.” Again Brown shares this idea with us as she dedicates her life work to unpacking the impact of shame on the human race. When we suppress our feelings of vulnerability, we often experience a hot-washing over of shame. Shame is this notion that we are either not good enough or far too much. Shame produces feelings of humiliation, dishonor, incompetence, and degradation. As people, we fight against these feelings every day. As educators, it’s nearly all we’ve known--both within our classroom walls as well as the constructs of our everyday lives.

In an interview with Krista Tippett, Brown adds that shame’s: “survival is based on us not talking about it, so it’s done everything it can do to make it unspeakable.” It is time to consider the impact this silence has had on teachers, students, and educational leaders.

We are born into a society that devalues vulnerability, but encourages the manufacturing of shame and fear. We are stripped of the ability to notice and name these feelings, which inevitably has led to the pervasive infection of our collective psyche.

As teachers, we experience our own shame and trauma around our profession in profound and detrimental ways. We have watched policy after policy degrade the function of schools in our society. From the defunding of public education, to the systematic attempts to continue separate but unequal experiences for students of color--public education is immersed in a state of trauma.

We know this, but we don’t. We feel it, we see it, we watch shame play out in thousands of ways in thousands of communities--but we haven’t stopped as leaders to identify it as such, or to name it. And so, it’s grown.

But what if we have it all backwards (and by we, I mean our entire collective society?) What if we’ve been tricked? Duped? Led down the wrong primrose path?

What if vulnerability--uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure--is actually our superpower? What if it is precisely because of our vulnerabilities that we are able to grow, create, innovate, and thrive? What if vulnerability cannot in fact weaken us? What if it’s the other way around?

The field of education needs vulnerable leaders now more than ever because we need people who can lead us by example. If creativity is born, not out of strength but out of vulnerability--then we need leaders who help us embrace our pinch-points and perceived “weak” spots. We need leaders who are willing to model, own, and claim their own exposed emotions.

Additionally, we need leaders who can steady the ship in relentlessly wavering waters. If uncertainty breeds vulnerability, then remote learning needs have catapulted teachers into dangerously exposed emotional situations. Every lesson is a risk; every strategy a potential failure. Are we learning and growing and thriving in unexpected ways? Absolutely. Are we scared, overwhelmed, and fearful that we are failing an entire generation of children? You bet.

For years, vulnerability has been associated with weakness, risk, danger, and instability. We need our leaders to stand up and flip this script. We need leadership to seek out vulnerability in our systems so that we can use creative disruption to transform not only learning, but our world as we know it. We need leaders to embrace the power of vulnerability--to spark security in the risk and to make our value feel certain even in the greatest times of uncertainty.

We need leaders to be vulnerable.

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