vulnerability life leadership

Vulnerability, life and leadership

I had a talk with Paul Lloyd Robson, the co-founder of Maniphesto, about vulnerability in life and leadership and how it relates to weakness, integrity and courage.

I share my perspective on why vulnerability is a critical component to engage others on your journey.

Maniphesto is the European umbrella organisation for men’s work and I share how my work with leaders around Europe made me realise the importance of men’s work. Learn more about Maniphesto here.


FREDRIK Vulnerability. Some people think that vulnerability is about basically opening up your rib cage, pouring from your heart and telling all the details of all your failures in life and love and whatever it it but you can be vulnerable by being personal without being private.

PAUL Good morning Fredrik.

FREDRIK Good morning Paul.

PAUL Thank you very much for jumping on here and having a little discussion with me. We met just a couple of months ago and you are an executive coach and you’ve been working in corporate world for about 20 years and in the last five with leadership development.

We’ve had a lot of discussions about the subject of vulnerability and that’s something that’s a little bit of a puzzle for me sometimes, and we’re trying to figure out what is the correct use and why is this an advantage in the business world and how do I do it properly or can I learn this if I don’t know how to do it all that kind of stuff so we’re going to record a couple of questions here and see where the discussion goes and see if it’s something that’s valuable to share with other people.

FREDRIK Good, very good.

PAUL So maybe if we can start off with there’s this where we all have strengths and weaknesses we know that right but what is the connection now between our weaknesses and vulnerability or

What’s the difference between of those?

FREDRIK I would say that weakness is probably the opposite of vulnerability actually.

If we talk about weakness of character in this context rather than physical weakness I would say weakness of character is when you rely on authority rather than authenticity, when you don’t have the strength to be who you are and show up real so you have to use your authority that’s been formally given to you to get things done, that’s weakness of character. I think it’s a good starting point at least for starting to unpack what weakness and vulnerability and these things mean.

PAUL Okay, but if I do have particularly things that I’m if I’m really good at for example facilitating meetings but I’m bad at structuring decision making processes or something like that how do I deal with that then and or how does vulnerability play into that kind of setup.

FREDRIK Well let’s first just try to define vulnerability or talk a bit more to unpack what it means.

I think vulnerability is about having the courage to show up and be real when you cannot control the outcome, so vulnerability is about emotional honesty in situations where there’s some potential threat or uncertainty.

So vulnerability is basically about, to use your example, it’s about just being emotionally honest about it and say I don’t know how to do this can you help me?

PAUL I notice the word emotionally honest so honest that means telling the truth but then also emotionally honest on top of that as well what do you mean by that.

FREDRIK Emotionally honest as in saying “I have some insecurity around this”. So for example I will ask you, or to use your example of I cannot structure this. Remember that asking for help is a strength and in doing so you can show vulnerability. You can ask for help in two ways: I can tell you: “Paul can you help me with this, here’s a step-by-step instruction, go and have it done and delivered by Tuesday.”

That’s not vulnerability but I can also ask for help in the sense of saying: “Paul, when it comes to this thing I don’t really know how to do it, I feel very insecure about presenting this to the board. Could you please support me here figuring this thing out?”

Now I’m emotionally vulnerable, there’s uncertainty because I don’t know how you will perceive it but I have the courage to show up and be real and say “I don’t know this can help me to figure it out”.

PAUL So there’s a risk that I I might actually look stupid or get like a bad response or something like that or…


I think we tend to make a too big thing out of this potential risk. In reality the risk is very small because what happens when you show vulnerability is that you give permission for others to be vulnerable and all of us are struggling in life to some extent.

Suffering is part of the human experience.

This is actually quite interesting because when I work with leaders I quite often use a 360 tool that goes into reactive tendencies and leadership competencies and it’s really looking at the underlying behaviours. Underlying thought patterns and behaviours of an individual and one of the things we look at is integrity.

So how are they perceived by their peers, by their boss, and by the reports in the area of integrity?

Getting a low score there really hurts for a lot of people right because integrity has become this thing that we need to really have but these people quite often get a low score I very often see that when I work with leaders so the interesting thing then is why and there’s typically two interpretations of low integrity.

One is that you don’t stand up and do what you said you’re gonna do or that you change your opinion all the time, you say one thing here but do something else there.

This is topic typically not what this low score indicates but what it does indicate is that a lot of leaders show up at work with a professional self and they only come there and are professional.

They are the role, they are the accountant, they are the CEO, they are the sales leader, whatever it is.

In the professional role they have everything under control and everything is pom pom pom pom. They have all the answers, they give all the directions.

Now the thing is, everybody is struggling and we know that so when you meet the person who always shows that perfect world, is on top of everything we sense that there’s something more to this person, there’s something under the surface, this person is struggling in some ways just as I’m doing.

So this low score of integrity is often about not having a feeling of knowing the entire human, just knowing a particular part that they choose to present and that is the part about introducing vulnerability and showing that I’m human too and that is an opportunity to build trust.

PAUL So this low integrity is do you think that’s a fairly widespread thing if people haven’t taken your test how would they notice in themselves what would Sarah would be signs that they could notice like oh there’s something that’s not quite lined up here is that just like noticing that I’m always in my professional role and maybe it’s getting tiring to have this kind of professional mask on the whole time and always be on top of things.

FREDRIK Or yeah is there other things that you think would indicate that well the I think to start answering that I think first of all I believe that you’re one human you cannot compartmentalize part of your life so you are one person at work one at home one as a friend one is that you’re one human and the underlying beliefs thought patterns and behaviors of all these different places where you show up will spill into each other if you have a tough day at work that probably gonna spill into how you are at home if your marriage is about to break that’s probably going to spill into how you show up at work so you’re one human and as you mature or as a child you are programmed with certain beliefs systems certain value systems that you then bring in bring with you through life and as you mature it’s about starting to examine how do they help me what do they do to me so what I’m looking at is these underlying thought patterns and beliefs to show how do you show up specifically under pressure and then we have certain tendencies towards being very compliant when you’re under pressure for example or maybe you’re very protective or maybe very driven controlling do it my way blah blah blah.

PAUL So I’m hearing like if I’m really radically different people in all these different settings but I’m noticing that maybe there’s some spillover happening that I’m no longer actually able to control then that’s also a warning sign that and maybe that’s where this integrity thing is playing in as well.

FREDRIK Yeah that definitely integrity plays in but I think the essence here when it comes to vulnerabilities about vulnerability is an opportunity for building trust and without trust it’s very difficult to really engage people and have them to join the journey whatever journey you’re on so try….

PAUL When you were talking originally about this then I was thinking like okay well what happens on my first week on the job I went up to my boss and I was like hey I really don’t know how to do this I think it’s very complicated and my boss was just like I don’t have time for whatever can’t you figure out stupid or something like that right yeah then what what’s what do I do there then right is that just a is that just a toxic environment or…

FREDRIK  Yeah you get a new world you get a new bus but I mean that reminds me of something my first in my first year when I started working back in 98 99 the first boss or like the big boss of the apartment I was in he taught me my first two leadership lessons and one was you said as a leader you always have five minutes if somebody comes to you always have five have five minutes I think it’s what Bernie brown would call the sliding door moment if that those five minutes which is an opportunity to get to know each other a little bit better and build trust and then if you take more than five minutes you can always say let’s take this another time I really want to understand what’s going on there so can we schedule some time for tomorrow whatever and I think this what you described here is this fear that if I come to my bosses the first week and said how to do this how likely is that really to happen it’s something you build up in your head that okay I have to be strong I have to show that I know everything and we need to impress people about right but how likely is it actually to happen if you ask about the same question 15 times yes your boss might doubt your capacity and your competence and if you are the right hire but I think we tend to make two big things out of this I think the most overlooked aspect of business is that we’re all human so if we can connect in a human only human to human we can recognize our own weaknesses and doubts and also strengths and all the good stuff in each other and that builds a bond and builds trust.

PAUL And what I’m also thinking as you’re talking is just as leaders the way that we act and the openness and vulnerability that we show and also revealing at suitable times that okay there’s also things where I don’t know and where other people I might need their help and input that also kind of empowers employees to do the same thing instead of putting on the brave face and trying to do things that they’re actually not qualified or not trained to be able to do right?

FREDRIK No exactly but I think that triggers two thoughts to me first shoes certain moments where I can be vulnerable that’s kind of starting to understand what the concept is all about but if you show up as a real leader and vulnerable you don’t choose your moment you are just you and being human means that there are things you don’t know you don’t understand and you connect to other people in order to better understand is it a learning opportunity and I think the other thing that it triggers me as well is as a leader things you don’t know what you said there I think that’s important to pick up on because your role as a leader is not to be the person knowing your role as a leader is to be the person enabling other people to create whatever they are creating and I meet this challenge a lot when I out there in companies working with leaders because when you start out as a manager and then you advanced your way up you are typically rewarded for expertise so the best accountant becomes team lead for the accounting team the best sales guy becomes a sales manager etc.

So this idea that you’re really good at something is reinforced and you start to build identity as okay and the great accountants are going to be the cfo Right?

However when you then step into true leadership it’s not about how good you are at accounting or how good it sales that matters it’s about your ability to enable other people to give their gift to the company in accounting or sales whatever it is and this is typically quite a big challenge because it it causes a bit of a shortcut to a threat to the ego because you spend 10 15 20 years building up your eager round about being the great accountant and then suddenly that doesn’t produce results you want to produce because you are always the leaders to enable other people

PAUL So could it even be counterproductive if I’ve been the guy who’s been rewarded for having all the answers all the time and then I carry on with that strategy I actually need to unlearn that and maybe even occasionally create space for other people to have the answers and listen really carefully to their answers instead of pushing through mine to yeah be able to create that that com collaborative environment.

FREDRIK Yeah exactly because if you’re the person that always has all the answers and you have this need to protect the story about yourself being the guy who have all the answers in the end you’re going to be very lonely because as a leader it’s not fun to work for that type of leaders.

PAUL Yeah Yeah!

Well they’re going to feel your employees are going to feel like you’re kind of like competing with them almost and pushing them down so that you can feel better about yourself and probably you do and so they’re just going to you’re going to be giving them a lack of self-worth complex well okay well I mean it’s a it’s a complicated substance actually because there’s also this idea of fake vulnerability as well where you mentioned a little bit that sometimes we choose moments and so we kind of fake it and so yeah what does that look like and how do we avoid fake vulnerability.

FREDRIK Well fake vulnerability I think maybe there has to be an element of fake vulnerability in the beginning as you start to approach the aspect of you that that could possibly be vulnerable if you’re not used to that and I think fake vulnerability let’s just say one more thing about vulnerability because vulnerability some people think that vulnerability is about basically open up your rib cage pouring from your heart and telling all the details of all your failures in life and love and whatever it has right but you can be vulnerable by being personal without being private so I can be vulnerable towards you in a personal way saying Paul I’m really struggling with this thing here I can’t figure this piece out but I know you have some experience could you help me figure it out how to do this that’s that I’m personal it can be personal to say Paul I don’t I can’t really focus today I have some stuff going on at home and I really need to take some time off is it okay if I I’m very personal what’s your vulnerability without being private I don’t have to share that the reason I have I feel unfocused today or have stuff going at home is because my wife just asked for divorce and I found out my daughter has this and world’s crashing down I don’t have to get into the private details of it I can still be personal okay so I think when some people when they approach the topic of vulnerability they think is all about the private part but it’s not you can choose to add that in when appropriate but it’s just about being personal recognizing where both humans and share on a human level.

PAUL Yeah that really makes me I mean so we’ve been running these retreats and gatherings from men for a long time and what I’m what really hits me every time is the weights that so many men are bearing around with themselves all the time and how incredibly good they are at that right they’re amazing like I’m blown away and amazed by how guys are able to just endure so much and not complain about it and not moan and not completely whatever and but and so but and then and then sometimes when you then create that space then it’s like the floodgates open and everything comes out right and so and so yeah there’s a there’s a need for being able to modulate or moderate this kind of thing and that takes a little bit of training maybe to learn how to do and maybe in an originally in a safe space that you can then train someplace and then be able to carry it over into an actual working environment.

FREDRIK Yeah some training and also it’s courage at the end of it isn’t it right it’s about daring to show up to be real when you cannot control the outcome and we touched on courage a couple of times when we talked as well and I think I like what role a may is saying uh in his book the man a man’s a search for himself he says that the opposite of courage in today’s society is not cowardice but conformity so if we live in a society that role models the man as a strong silent type that solves everything himself um and it’s just if that’s what we all men try to conform to of course it’s going to be hard to show that you are vulnerable the areas you can’t figure out there are things that you where you doubt yourself et cetera and ask for help right so I think the work we do with the manifesto and men’s work around the world is so important and actually the reason I first came to men’s work was when I’m out working with leaders there’s one element of the work I do is where I enviro vulnerable and I share my story through corporate and burnout and things and at the end of it there’s always a manager coming up to me saying hey Frederick it’s so nice to see a strong powerful man being so vulnerable because then I realized i’m not alone with my thoughts and it’s okay to talk about it and that’s when I started to realize that there’s so much contained frustration in men and we need to provide a platform for men to talk.

PAUL Absolutely yeah so what are the consequences of not doing that I know that’s something we’ve had a couple of conversations about but what happens if uh if we’re not able to find that vulnerability or if we feel like we need to and that’s I think it’s a journey that both of us have been down to a certain extent right.

FREDRIK Yeah yes I think I think that two consequences of it one is the consequence in the in the public space so to speak if you’re a leader if you try to engage other people you try to you have an idea of going somewhere I want people to join you if you don’t show vulnerability meaning showing that you’re human too and engage in a human level you’re going to going to become very lonely and it puts you in a position where people don’t really know if you’re going to trust you probably have to use authority rather than authenticity to get things done and it’s not fun to work for that type of leader and I’ve met many of those leaders and quite often they are quickly approaching burnout or playing on the board or burnout because they have to do a lot of stuff themselves and importantly they have to do a lot of mitigating to make sure they uphold their ego story of themselves as being the person that knows that has authority that drives so that’s one consequence I think on the personal space I think by containing all the suffering we experience through life and I say all the suffering as an expression but suffering is certainly a part of the human experience if you contain that and never talk about it share it we gonna build up frustration and resentment and possibly regret and that’s gonna come out somehow for some people they stop and say well there’s gotta be more to life than this and they seek a spiritual path to some extent religious or not but some type of spiritual path other people try to push that away and I quite often see that ending up in the shadow sides of spirituality which could be seeking alcohol to numb the pain or sex or drugs or extra martial affairs or whatever it could be in order to push away that pain of not being not allowing yourself to be human and connect.

PAUL Yeah Yeah!

That’s yeah absolutely yeah and addictions seem to be it’s this thing that when we don’t have real people to turn to with our pain then whenever something hard happens then we turn to our addictions instead if that’s smoking or pornography or whatever as well and that becomes our best friend and yeah and what a lonely life that is right so yeah so.

FREDRIK  I think no but I think I have I think the latest research I haven’t studied it too much in detail but I think it shows that alcoholism is actually not the medical condition it’s actually a social condition it’s not triggered by some genetic defect or anything like that it’s actually just an expression of loneliness.

PAUL Yeah I often see this oh I’ve read about this research that shows like the rats where they were fed you could they could either have cocaine water or normal water and when they were in like a really boring cage and they got very quickly addicted to cocaine but as soon as they’re in like rat play land and there was lots of entertainment for them they weren’t interested in the cocaine because they instinctively their bodies knew this is not good for me and there’s other things that I can get enjoyment and meaning out of as well and I think that’s very true for humans also so I also see a lot of guys who are very focused on these addictions but they don’t that that kind of gives that that can give that more addiction as well so I’m sorry more energy sometimes as well instead of focusing on what’s my positive vision for how I’m becoming more present more real more in contact with the people that I’m working with and then often that other stuff becomes misunderstood okay and then I just want to let’s finish off uh with talking about that’s the downside what’s the plus side what happens I was just thinking in my eight years that I worked in a corporate environment I never found this I would say I was certainly playing that role to a certain extent and I remember seeing some people where we would come to meetings and no matter what happened at this meeting and no matter what other people who had different opinions whatever they knew what they stood for and they stood up for us and they argued for it and they they were they listened they were whatever but they actually when you spoke about courage and I was thinking there’s also a courage sometimes in kind of saying like this is the right thing for our company this is what our values and our vision is and this is where we want to go and I have a strong belief that that’s how we want to go there that can be a scary thing to do as well right but those are the people that I also saw had that rocket fuel to really be making a difference.

FREDRIK Yeah and I guess that comes down to in integrity and integrity if it really comes from your heart it is really what you believe in versus when it’s something your boss have told you to say in order to get the numbers up right and I think and that’s great if it is delivered in such a way that people feel inspired to join you on your journey right?

There’s a big difference between having all that passion and say this is what I’m gonna do argue for it and get all the people to sign the dotted line compared to telling the story in a compelling way so people are really excited about joining you on this journey and that’s all you have to do people are queuing up to join you because they’re so excited about the story you’re told about the vision and how you’re going to get there together as a team etc.

PAUL Yeah which requires that there’s that you’re actually putting yourself out there to a certain extent and showing yourself as a real human that’s how you can kind of that yeah that’s the way we create these connections.

FREDRIK Yeah because we need trust to do that right if you show up only with your professional self people’s gonna doubt is that this guy for real he seems to have no problem seems to be in control of everything he doesn’t ever give me any clue of actually being human and I know that I have all these issues so he must have some too why can’t he share that and that is very hard to build trust and if you don’t have trust you can’t engage the people on your journey whatever is to you want to do.

PAUL Yeah well I really appreciate the way that you connected integrity and vulnerability in the beginning of our talk it came back as well there and then and then how that can foster trust to really move I just read a really old classical book uh called from good to great  Jim Collins I’m sure you’ve heard of it right and I was really actually there’s some there’s some really solid stuff there about that level five leader that they speak about and how he kind of brings together and with this attitude of humility in it for his personal ego but extremely ambitious on the behalf of the company right and so he is able to create that drive but it’s not about him it’s about the people he’s working with really about gathering that team and lifting people up so…


PAUL Great!

Well, Frederick you’re doing this professionally with uh people all around the world you’ve been doing it for a long time where should people find you and read more about your work if they’re interested in understanding a little bit more of the way you’re working with

FREDRIK So the easiest thing is to go to my so and then also we have now this mentoring launch with manifesto right I’m honoured to be one of the mentors there to support the immense movement in Europe under your guidance.

PAUL Yeah well in our collective guidance so I i would say very much but yeah that’s mentors uh plural then so far yeah which is we’ve just launched that that page and that’s putting out from the group mentoring program that we’re running called manifesto core so really exciting to see how that’s gonna be taking off from here so thanks very much.

Great talking to you.

FREDRIK Thank you Paul.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.