Over the last few years several people have mentioned the work of Irish poet David Whyte. But only in the last few weeks have his words found their way to me, and finally landed with impact. David is a rare find, straddling both poetry and business. He is the author of several poetry books and is an Associate Fellow at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford. For over 20 years he has championed conversational leadership, specifically focussing first on the conversations leaders have with themselves.
“He especially looks at the necessity for a private but courageous self-examination and self-knowledge. He looks at the way this foundational interior conversation enables those in positions of responsibility to make sense of the hundreds of exterior public conversations, which can entrap and besiege them. His work is not only sustaining and nourishing for individuals irrespective of the organization for which they work, but also revitalizing and emboldening for those who work together day after day and who wish to bring a fresh perspective and a fresh language to their shared endeavors.”
In his work, he has captured the importance of vulnerability in the human experience. This is a recording of him talking about vulnerability for On Being, and it’s profound. (You can listen to and read more of David Whyte at On Being here).
“Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.
To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.
The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.”
Social science researcher Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainity, risk and emotional exposure – elements leaders in all areanas need to embrace. Indeed, elements all humans need to embrace. Her research has uncovered the cultural paradox of vulnerability: in you it’s courage, in me it’s weakness: it’s the first thing I look for you in you, and the last thing I want to show about myself. Vulnerability is how we connect and find a way in to each other. Without it, we sit outside of ourselves and our lives.
The terrifying truth is that the excruciating rampage of emotions we feel when we are vulnerable is the essence of our humanity. To run from those emotions is to shut down the very thing that is the gateway to belonging and connection, some of our primal needs. Vulnerability is never comfortable, but it is our most accurate measure of courage.