March 20, 2023

How to be a Powerfully Vulnerable Leader (Challenge #59)

How to be a Powerfully Vulnerable Leader (Challenge #59)
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I talk a lot about setting and maintaining strong boundaries on this podcast. That’s for a simple reason. Many principled leaders, your host included, suck at boundaries. However, too much of any good thing leads to its own problems. So today we’re going to explore the contradictory concept of empowered vulnerability, and how admitting a weakness from a position of strength is necessary to solve the stickiest leadership problems.
Related Episodes:

The Godfather’s Guide to Saying No—Kindly! (Challenge #46)
In Praise of "Quiet Quitting" (Challenge #36)
Your Team Is NOT Your Family (Challenge #31)

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This episode was produced byPodcast Boutique.


KLC 59: How to be a powerfully vulnerable leader

I talk a lot about setting and maintaining strong boundaries on this podcast. That’s for a simple reason. Many principled leaders, your host included, suck at boundaries. In fact, the breakdown I described back in episode zero? The one that led to me creating the kind leadership guild? That happened in large part because I was letting my new job live rent free in my head until it almost broke me. In learning from that mistake, I set up boundaries that made me a healthier person and a stronger leader. However, too much of any good thing leads to its own problems. In my case, I became a little too walled off, and a little too reluctant to make connections with people who seemed above me in one way or another or had expertise in areas I didn’t, which led to my progress being stopped by barriers which could have been overcome with a little help from a colleague. So today we’re going to explore the contradictory concept of empowered vulnerability, and how admitting a weakness from a position of strength is necessary to solve the stickiest leadership problems.


Welcome to the Kind Leadership Challenge, the podcast that empowers principled leaders to heal their organizations in ten minutes! I’m Dr. Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Guild, where I use my PhD in Higher ed leadership and nearly 2 decades of experience in academic libraries to coach leaders like you who want to build a better world without burning out. 

Kind Leaders aren’t perfect, and we don’t need to be. We strive to make tough decisions without becoming jerks. We design systems that enable our teams to make a big impact without overworking. And we know that once we stop controlling and start collaborating, even the most ambitious vision can become effortless. Kind Leadership is pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. So if you’re up for a challenge, stick around as I teach you how your school or library can create a resilient, thriving legacy that will strengthen your community long after you’re gone.


So yeah. Empowered Vulnerability seems like a contradiction in terms, right? Well, it’s actually more like a paradox, where a seeming contradiction points to a deeper truth. I first accidentally discovered this paradox about ten years ago, when I was a few semesters into my PhD coursework. I was enjoying the classes, but there was a bit of distance between me and my classmates, all of whom seemed far more successful and definitely more social than I was. Right before the summer semester started, A dear friend of mine passed away unexpectedly, and I was dealing with a lot of strong emotions. I made arrangements to fly across the country to the funeral, and spent most of the trip out and back in shock, trying to hold myself together to be strong for our mutual friends. I also spent a lot of that trip reflecting on just how distrusting and defensive I had become over the previous years. As we celebrated the life of our bubbly, outgoing, drama teacher friend, and I saw the huge crowd of colleagues and students who came to honor her, I realized a brutal truth. If I wanted to actually build a better world with my talents, then I needed to figure out how to connect with people without getting walked over.

The next day, When I was in the Chicago airport waiting for my connecting flight home, my phone rang, and it was one of my classmates with some questions about a group project. I was all business, until she asked me how I was doing, and In that moment, I had a choice. Open up, or stay safe. Well, I chose to open up, and shared a little more of the story of my friend’s passing, and though I nearly stopped when my voice began to vibrate with tears, I pressed on. My classmate listened, but she didn’t mock me or think I was a dork or whatever middle school baggage had been keeping me from really connecting with the rest of my cohort. She listened, and supported, and in so doing helped me become more confident that my classmates might actually like a socially awkward weirdo like me. 

In fact, it turns out some of the folks in my cohort had actually been a little intimidated by me, with my big vocabulary and more, well, bookish background. Once we understood each other a little better, I started opening up more and more, as I felt safer that I wouldn’t be hurt. We all held down full time jobs as faculty or staff in local higher ed institutions, and I learned a lot from each of them about how every part of our schools worked, from the finance office to residential life to even facilities. They learned from me how libraries work, and how we served students. And by the time we all got through our coursework and started writing our dissertations, I considered several of them close friends and all of them valued colleagues. I couldn’t have gotten through my PhD without them. In fact, I’m not sure this podcast would exist without them.

Now, that’s a sweet story about the magic of friendship (and just to let those of you know who caught the My Little Pony Reference, I am TOTALLY a Twilight Sparkle). But what does empowered vulnerability look like when you’re not coming home from a funeral that sparked an existential crisis? Well, let’s turn down the stakes and flip the tables a bit. When there is someone I need to connect more closely with, I have to process and let go of my anxiety about what they will think of me. That worry is just baggage and static. I also, at least temporarily, have to set to one side what I think might gain from a closer working relationship with that person. What I actually need to get clear on first is what that other person might need from me, and what I can and cannot do to support them. That serves two purposes—first, it gets you out of your own head and your own neuroses, and secondly it reminds you that you do have valuable skills and resources that could help this person you find intimidating. 

Figuring out how you can help someone you want to build a more trusting partnership with usually requires a conversation where you get to know a colleague a little better, and get curious about their needs. Then you can offer what you have to give, and then from that position of power let them know how they can help you in return. Basically, the idea is not to knock down your walls. Boundaries are good things, and broadly speaking I think that most of us in mission-oriented professions need more of them, not less. But even the strongest walls become useless if there aren’t gates where information, people, and trust can flow in and out relatively freely, but perhaps with a guard at the door to make sure nothing comes in that could threaten you or your values.

So here’s your challenge in empowered vulnerability. Is there someone you know of who might have the resources or expertise you need to help your organization, but something’s holding you back from reaching out? Take a moment to sit with your emotions and figure out why you’re reluctant, and whether or not your reluctance is valid. Then start pondering what their likely problems might be, and ways your talents and resources could help them. That way when you do connect, you can do it from a position of empowered vulnerability. 


Thanks as always for listening to the kind leadership challenge. Before you go, here’s a quick way you can spread the word of kind leadership. I’d like you to take a moment to think of a friend or colleague who might benefit from this week’s episode. Then, open your app or head over to and share this episode with them. Never doubt that day by day, you’re building a better world, even if you can't see it yet. So until next time, stay kind now.  

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