Spiritual Reflections

Vulnerability: The Journey to Wholeness

Vulnerability is not reserved for the leader. It is a mutual condition that is embraced if lifting the group toward wholeness is the goal.

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to consider that a provocative piece of art might be viewed as a manifestation of the artist’s deep feelings. Likewise, the writer’s most successful work might be interpreted as a reflection of the author’s spirit, or a projection of personal life experiences. The splendor of art, in any form, can be contemplated as the result of the inner spiritual development of the craftsman. This development is a lifelong journey that is often recognized in the evolution of the artist’s skill or technique, expression or capacity to change the mind or heart of the observer. 

The IHM core value of wholeness invites IHM Sisters, Associates, and those who resonate with the essence of who we are to integrate the many aspects of our lives into a rhythm that brings peace and harmony to all our encounters. Being vulnerable may seem at odds with the concept of wholeness. Our instincts, as people, and as leaders, caution us to protect ourselves from becoming vulnerable. The image of the craftsman again shows us that from shards, and nature’s elements, and paint, and clay, the raw stuff of life, emerge great masterpieces, whole and beautiful. Parker Palmer, in his enduring work A Hidden Wholeness1 writes: “A divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice. Once I have seen my dividedness, do I continue to live a contradiction – or do I try to bring my inner and outer worlds back into harmony?” 

Leadership is no less an art than the work of a sculptor, musician, actor, architect, or poet. 

Great leadership requires the deep, inner work of understanding self and the realization that the service of a leader is not about power, or control, or the exclusion of others. However, it is about opening one’s heart and soul to those who are served, and the very act of opening oneself evokes the frightening reality that an open heart gives way to the gift and burden of vulnerability. It is about the arduous path toward wholeness. 

Well-intended observers sometimes characterize leadership as “lonely at the top.” The flaw in that statement is that spiritual, servant, or simply humanistic leaders are not “at the top.” They exist in and fully participate within the community they serve, and they recognize that everyone in the group is vulnerable. Vulnerability is not reserved for the leader. It is a mutual condition that is embraced if lifting the group toward wholeness is the goal. 

Of course, it’s easy to name the circumstances that expose a leader’s vulnerability. For example, leaders typically see a fuller picture than someone who performs a focused task within the larger landscape. That opens the leader to criticism when decisions are made that reflect a broader understanding of the situation and that don’t align with the hopes and dreams of individuals in the group. This situation occurs frequently in the life of any organization and often places the leader on the defensive, introduces tension, and/or creates a division in the group. Division challenges the wholeness leaders strive to attain personally and among those they serve. 

On the flip side, leaders can turn their vulnerability into a positive or more authentic side of their role. In the example given or in almost all other situations, a leader can express vulnerability openly and honestly. There are everyday opportunities for leaders to be transparent by sharing information, explaining the “whys” of what is happening, and simply expressing personal feelings that otherwise are kept close to the vest and out of reach for anyone to see or understand. A leader can shift the defensiveness caused by vulnerability by revealing self in ways that are holistic and sometimes even lighthearted! This ability to be open on the part of the leader gets at the inner work that moves closer to wholeness and further away from stress. 

There is a third movement on this continuum of vulnerability. A position of defensiveness at first, then an opening of self to others, can lead finally to an invitation on the part of the leader for others to share their own vulnerability with the leader and everyone else. The recognition that everyone in the group is vulnerable changes the dynamic and moves a leader from the proverbial and pseudo “top” to the center, where leaders most effectively do their work. When leaders say they are collaborative or inclusive, that is often cliché for something else unless the inner work of owning and embracing their vulnerability is at the heart of their willingness to lead. 

In time, owning vulnerability is an entrée to courage, empowerment, and the ability to lead through the eyes of those who are served. It doesn’t happen overnight and is often messy. Sometimes it is discouraging. It requires strategy of a different nature, not the strategy that points to objective performance indicators but one that leads to deeper human outcomes such as personal satisfaction, engagement among team members, innovation in a group, and ultimately a sense of belonging. 

In summary, vulnerability exposes anyone to pain and defensiveness. If embraced and owned, leaders can move from this initial response by turning to those they serve and inviting them into a space that enjoys the give and take of open, honest dialogue and the sharing of feelings. It is a style of leadership that is transformational. Groups who experience this graciousness of a leader are successful in their enterprises, and they themselves grow as humans and teams. This is a longstanding hope of a leader. It requires the affirmation of Parker Palmer’s statement that wholeness is always a choice

Admittedly, none of this is easy because vulnerability almost always results from interaction between people, and interaction between leaders and the people they serve is a long, sensitive, even spiritual pathway that takes the craftsmanship of an artist. The next time you observe the beauty of a painting on canvas, admire the grandeur of a sculptor’s completed image, or enjoy the magnificence of a composer’s symphony, think about the leader whose craft is one of empowering people to be their best selves. Vulnerability is the stuff of a leader’s craft. The inner work that is required to bring a leader’s vulnerability to the fullness of the human experience is nothing short of a great blessing. 

  1. Palmer, Parker J. 2004. “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey toward an undivided life.” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  ↩︎

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