The Power of Vulnerability

August 16, 2012 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

“The only kind of power I now recognize is vulnerability.” That seemed like a strange statement to come from Bill George, a former CEO, a best-selling author, and now the executive in residence at the Harvard Business School.

The topic of vulnerability came up again during a meeting I had with a man who runs an organization.  We had a long agenda to cover, but as we started, he told me he had an insight he thought I would appreciate. When things get intense and he is really stretched, he said, he is more likely than usual to turn to his spiritual training from Buddhism. When he does, he gets more centered. He opens up. And when he opens up, he becomes more vulnerable.

He then talked of the wonders and dangers of vulnerability. He said, “When you make yourself vulnerable, you really do get hurt.”I told him about Bill George’s statement. How can vulnerability, something we tend to equate with weakness, be power? When we are fully extended at the edge of chaos, when we are moving forward in uncertainty, we often feel fear. It is that fear that often leads spiritually trained people to call upon their disciplines. 

In the exercise of spiritual discipline, values are clarified, courage is summoned and we choose to live with increased integrity and authenticity.  As we become more genuine, we can better love and trust ourselves, and then we can better love and trust others.

At that point we radiate our increased virtue, and that radiation invites others into a potential joint commitment to the common good and a highly meaningful relationship. In those relationships, things can be accomplished that cannot be otherwise accomplished. In those relationships we can learn things we cannot otherwise learn. In such relationships, we tap power that is not otherwise available.

Yet in such relationships we are vulnerable. In a relationship of high trust, there is always a temptation for the other to exploit out of self-interest. When this happens, it is natural to feel deeply violated.  When this hurt occurs, some people swear to never be vulnerable again. (Think of the brokenhearted lover.) The consequence of this decision is they cut themselves off from the power of vulnerability.

Is vulnerability worth the cost? I would answer yes. What does “vulnerability equals power” mean to you?