The Power of Being Vulnerable

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Blog by Danica Straith. Danica joined the Re-Code team in spring 2015 for a one-year Social Innovation Fellowship through the McConnell Foundation’s Fellowship Program.
As I wrap up my Re-Code fellowship with the McConnell Foundation, I have many thoughts on this pivotal year and what I have learned throughout. I would, however, like to come full circle on one of my initial fellowship learning goals. Though, instead of full circle, I think I may be still rounding a corner. And instead of a circle, it may be more of an oval shape, but here is my attempt to articulate.
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At the outset of my fellowship, I said that I wanted to develop my skills in stakeholder management and relationship building within the budding Re-Code ecosystem. This goal drilled down into another, more personal, capacity building aim; one where I felt like I needed to learn how to better relate to a diversity of people, to meet them where they were at, and to find ways to speak their language authentically and sincerely. From my previous research on scaling impact, I saw that the ability to genuinely relate was critical to deepening any collective work aimed at tackling deeply rooted and systemic problems. We can talk about amplifying models all we want, but if they can’t be socialized and made sense of in the day to day, they can become meaningless. This falls under one of the three dimensions of scaling—scaling deep*.

It seems that empathy with a big E requires that we expose our own rawness to our partners and colleagues from time to time.

Empathy is one of the Foundation’s guiding principles when undergoing analysis and co-creation with our grant seekers and their proposals. Successful systems thinkers and social innovators require a sort of empathetic capacity to make a meaningful difference for the vulnerable communities they are a part of and/or serve. One thing I learned over the year was that if we are to be empathetic, there is a reciprocal need to practice vulnerability. At the Foundation, we embrace the need to “think boldly and take risks—and to uncover insights in both our successes and our failures”. We often speak to this with regards to our initiatives and projects, but sometimes it may mean uncovering personal realities as well. It seems that empathy with a big E requires that we expose our own rawness to our partners and colleagues from time to time. If we are only holding ourselves accountable to being empathetic to other’s vulnerability, we are not putting both feet into the problems we are trying to solve. To engage in the reciprocity necessary for the types of relationship we need for systems change, we must also share our own uneasy and uncomfortable feelings to unleash the energy that can result from these sorts of unifying human moments.
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For instance, some of us have shared how we can embody the state of our initiatives. If an initiative is going well, we may feel a sense of confidence that can overflow into other aspects of our life. If it took a wrong turn, we might take this to heart, sometimes chipping away at our sense of ability in other domains as well. These are deeply broken systems that each one of us is heavily invested in working on — it’s natural that we take the successes and failures to heart. We know that these systems are painful to those that are underserved or not served at all by them.

How can we be more comfortable with anger, sadness, and disappointment?

This being said, as I think about the connection between social innovation, empathy and now vulnerability, I wonder how this actually plays out. How can we be more comfortable with anger, sadness, and disappointment? How can we let it sit and recognize it for what it is so we can use that energy to reach a new level of understanding or a deeper level of partnership and motivation? There is a full spectrum of feelings here that must not be neutralized in our attempt to avoid the sensitivities and rawness. I believe that a thoughtful tapping into these blurred personal, professional and project-based vulnerabilities may help us fuse the relationships necessary to move along with our aims.

We can’t be vulnerable all the time.

There is also a healthy balance between giving and receiving. We can’t be vulnerable all the time. At times we need to protect ourselves, feel confident, and power through simply due to our sheer need to survive and try things. I have Adam Kahane and his wonderful thoughts on Power and Love in the back of my mind where he encourages us to build up our weaker drive (either love or power). This means either an emphasis on a process for social homogenization and integration OR a process for social differentiation and individualization, perhaps by way of unleashing the entrepreneurial self. All in all, if we want to exercise leadership in helping folks progress from falling to running again, we have to allow ourselves to do it with them as well. This will build meaningful trust and connect us in a way that is unstoppable.