Vulnerability: Choosing Courage over Comfort

On the heels of hearing researcher and author Brené Brown at this year’s NewSchools Venture Fund Summit, Education Pioneers CEO Scott Morgan and I have been talking with our leadership team about vulnerability and its relationship to leadership and courage, one of Education Pioneers’ core values.

Ms. Brown’s engaging talk helped me and others think more deeply about how transformation—at an individual or systemic level—is an intensely human process, involving the head AND the heart. And if I had to channel Ms. Brown, I bet she would say “more heart, folks!”

As Scott wrote in a recent post, Brené’s focus on vulnerability was eye-opening for a lot of us in the room. Ed reformers talk about innovation, courage, accountability—and sometimes humility. But we don’t talk about being vulnerable.

Yet Ms. Brown’s research shows that vulnerability is the gateway to creativity, innovation, trust, empathy, joy, courage, even accountability—basically everything we seek as transformative leaders and fully alive, connected human beings!  

Hearing from Brené got me thinking about the paradox that vulnerability enables courage.  Or said another way - being vulnerable is not being “weak”. If we see vulnerability and courage as related—rather than on opposite ends of a spectrum—might we be more willing to acknowledge when we don’t know the answer or when we need help and support?

At Education Pioneers we recruit and assess thousands of professionals interested in working in the education sector. Do we need to think differently about how we assess courage and might we look for a broader range of “courageous” actions among these individuals? How might we assess vulnerability in high stakes interview settings?

Recently, I was talking with one of Education Pioneers’ leaders, let’s call her Alicia. She was facing one of those moments where she felt she had to be brave and “step up” to address tension between her and a workmate. I talk to my colleagues all the time about these situations, but the coaching I provided this time was different. I asked Alicia if she felt she had been vulnerable with her colleague.

While Alicia did not come out and say, “are you kidding?” I heard the skepticism in her voice. I told her about Ms. Brown’s plenary, and I shared some of my own experiences where, in hindsight, a little more vulnerability on my part would have helped me be a better collaborator, boss, and partner. 

Alicia and I had talked about how my Education Pioneers’ colleagues and I try to “say the thing” and how that is an act of both courage and vulnerability. You put yourself out there without knowing how things will turn out. We also talked about how the students in her school are demonstrating their vulnerability every day—and if they can do that, so can she. 

Sometimes I wonder if I am betraying my former beliefs in encouraging vulnerability, and I tell myself that it is not “weakness” to be vulnerable. Ultimately, it is courage. 



Frances McLaughlin Frances McLaughlin is the President of Education Pioneers and is responsible for implementing the organization's strategy nationally to achieve EP's ambitious goals. She believes deeply that effective management and leadership – in addition to high quality instruction – are necessary for all students to reach their academic potential.


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