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Being Vulnerable – The Chief’s Desk

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It’s been a while since I wrote anything philosophical. Then again, I have not had a lot of opportunity to read much lately outside of draft contracts and legislative language. Not the kind of reading I enjoy.

What does it mean to you when someone tells you that you need to be vulnerable? I’m currently reading a book entitled Dare to Lead by Dr. Brené Brown. She is a well-known researcher, author, and speaker. Her book was recommended to me by Fire Chief Chuck Ryan with Tucson FD.

CAFMA, From the Chief, Chief Scott Freitag, Chiefs Desk, Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority, being vulnerable,

We have talked in the past about setting stretch goals and pushing our limits. As a reminder, stretch goals are goals that take you outside your comfort zone and are meant to challenge you beyond your current abilities. From the sports world, we’ve used people like Michael Jordan and Mark Buerhle as examples of people who stretched themselves beyond their natural talents to become world-class athletes. We’ve also talked about those who got by on their God-given talent until they couldn’t make it any further. Many of those fell into habits to help compensate for their insecurities.

Pushing yourself beyond your current limits is, in fact, making yourself vulnerable. Aiming for something and missing the mark can open you to criticism which is not something any of us enjoy. That said, you won’t realize your true potential if you don’t push yourself beyond your comfort zone.

Vulnerability goes beyond the idea of stretch goals or accomplishing something new. Personally, I feel vulnerable every time I get up to speak in front of a group. Whether it’s locally in front of a Captain’s Academy, or at Fire-Rescue International in front of peers from across the country, I am nervous. This is especially true if what I’m presenting is new material. When I develop a program, I put a lot of time, effort, and energy into whatever the topic may be. So, when I get up in front of a group to speak I’m literally putting myself and my work out there for everyone to critique. Some feedback is good, some maybe not so good. Either way, if it’s constructive feedback, it helps me grow and develop.

Many people today are reluctant to be vulnerable or put themselves out where they could potentially fail. Nothing great was ever created without some level of failure first. That said, the world we live in today seems more toxic than in the past. In short, especially since COVID, people are downright mean. Social media trolls will stop at nothing to tear people apart, and for what? People who are afraid to try or are too lazy to put in the effort wait in the shadows to take shots at those brave enough to step into the light. In some twisted way, it makes them feel better about themselves. I’ll say this, now is definitely not the time to hunker down or put the flak jacket on to protect ourselves. If we want good things to happen, it’s time to stand up and start neutralizing the toxicity in our world.

You cannot go through life avoiding disappointment, struggle, criticism, or failure. No matter how much it sucks, you will experience all of the above. If you respond and do not react negatively, you can take the lessons learned and turn challenge into opportunity. That requires you to be vulnerable, and vulnerability requires courage.

Dr. Brown makes the point that vulnerability is not oversharing. She uses the example of a CEO who approached her after a seminar. He told her that he understood the lesson and had decided to go back to his team and investors with a new message: I don’t know what I’m doing, we are bleeding money, and I’m not sure how to change the direction. That would be considered a good example of oversharing. She told the CEO that while he did need to share those feelings of doubt with someone, his shareholders and management team were definitely not the right audience.

However, going to his team and sharing that the organization was experiencing a challenging time, explaining the specifics of the issues, and asking his team for their thoughts/ideas would be an appropriate approach. Just because you are in a leadership role does not mean you have all the answers. That’s why it is important to build a strong team.

There are times when we as human beings need to be able to share our true feelings with a confidant. How we communicate that same message to our team may require a different approach. You certainly don’t want to undermine their confidence in you or your organization, but you do want them to understand the challenges and be able to provide input. Solutions to challenges can come from anywhere, whether it is inside or outside the organization. Be willing to admit you don’t know and ask for help. My friends, that is being vulnerable.

What you should take from the above example is that there is a balance that must be struck, just like everything else we do in life. We are not perfect beings, in fact, being imperfect is what makes us innately human. Yes, failure or missing the mark is hard, but the lessons learned can be invaluable.

Succeeding in life involves a lot of resiliency, or the ability to be knocked down and then get back up and keep moving.

Dr. Brown also shares a story from an Air Force General. In brief, the General was holding a meeting with the troops and an Airman asked when the ops tempo would be slowing down because they were all tired. The General thought about the question for a moment and considered how to respond. Understanding that the military has been seeing a significant rise in suicide rates and knowing some of the reasons driving up the numbers, she decided to ask the participants how many were feeling lonely. Out of approximately 40 participants in the room, fifteen raised their hands. That is not only an example of being vulnerable but of using words that are sometimes tough to use because of how they are perceived. As she points out, the word ‘disconnect’ means the same thing, but it’s more sterile than saying “I’m lonely.”

Why would she ask that particular question when the initial concern referenced exhaustion? Because loneliness lends itself to the feeling of being run down or tired. Military members find themselves separated from their family and friends while at the same time not necessarily connecting as easily with others in their new environment. The easy way to fix “tired” is to send someone back to their room so they can rest, but if the reality is that they are lonely, sending them back to their room only exacerbates the issue.

Why share this story? Because the General went back to the leadership doctrine published by the Air Force. She compared the latest version written in the 2000s to the one written in 1948. The leadership doctrine written over 70 years ago used words like love, feeling, belonging, fear, etc. Words like that, feeling words, have largely been scrubbed from much of the current Air Force leadership doctrine. As she pointed out, today’s leadership doctrine is more sterile, using terms like strategic or tactical leadership.

I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as she did in characterizing a lot of the leadership strategy today as sterile. We still talk about the importance of humility, caring, compassion, courage, and empathy, to offer a few examples. That said, the one I have not personally considered or used before being introduced to Dr. Brown’s work is the idea of vulnerability. It’s not that I have not lived the concept, I mean I don’t believe many would accuse me of not putting myself out in front of things. I just never considered what it meant, or how it might be defined.

I will leave you with this quote to consider from Dare to Lead:

“Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fear and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.”

If you want to succeed, you have to be vulnerable putting yourself out there, setting stretch goals, and falling down from time to time. If you want to be an effective leader, you have to show what it means to be vulnerable, and that takes a lot of courage and humility. And, before you say it, I do realize that I do not even register on the scale in regards to empathy, but I do possess other traits that fill the void. To be fair, Feddema is at least one point worse than me in that area.

If interested, you can find out more about Dr. Brown’s work, books, and podcasts on her website:

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