The critical relationship between vulnerability and how to take risks

Do you perceive vulnerability to be a weakness or a strength? If you answer the former, you are not alone, particularly among men but also among a growing number of women. In this article, John Williams, an experienced ontological leadership coach, explores the relationship between vulnerability and risk-taking. He also exposes some of the lesser-discussed facets of vulnerability that might be playing a role in your life or work, perhaps even without you knowing it.

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Sep 10, 2022

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8 mins read

No endeavour or undertaking throughout the history of humanity has ever been achieved without risk. Even actions as mundane as eating and breathing carry risks, albeit known and calculated. You could get food poisoning from eating contaminated food, and breathing polluted air can eventually lead to cancer. Just getting out of bed is a calculated risk! However, unless we take risks, there will be no rewards. This article looks at how you can be better prepared to ensure the risks you take in life are driven by the evidence you have in front of you versus a lack of confidence or excess of bravado. By looking into the role of vulnerability and its relationship with taking risks, you will learn why this quality is key to success in all aspects of life. 

From a business and professional context, vulnerability is critical to unlocking your team's potential in any area where they are exposed to a risk of failure. Innovation, creativity, strategic development and, most importantly, risk management are affected. At this point, you might be wondering what vulnerability has to do with these key functions. Perhaps you regard vulnerability as a weakness. That is hardly surprising, given vulnerability is a quality that is commonly misunderstood. Dictionary.com gives us the following definitions for vulnerability:

  1. Openness or susceptibility to attack or harm.
  2. Willingness to show emotion or to allow one’s weaknesses to be seen or known; willingness to risk being emotionally hurt.
  3. The condition of needing supportive or protective social services and community resources because of advanced age, poverty, disability, etc.
  4. Biology, Ecology. Likeliness to be classified as an endangered species in the near future unless circumstances improve.

Given these definitions, it’s hardly surprising that vulnerability is viewed as a liability and not an asset. After all, who wants to be open to attack, an emotional wreck, in need of protection or an endangered species? No thank you. The truth is that vulnerability is a strength and enormously underrated.

In his latest book, HUMAN BEING, author Ashkan Tashvir talks of vulnerability in the context of it being one of thirty-one Aspects of Being that contribute to our ability to lead and function effectively. Tashvir argues, “Vulnerability is not being weak, agreeable or submissive. It is when you embrace your imperfections. It is considered the quality of being with your authentic self without obsessive concern over the impression you make.” He also writes that vulnerability is “how you are being when confronted or exposed to perceived threats, ridicule, attacks or harm (emotional or physical)” partially explaining the relationship with taking and managing risks. 

In short, Tashvir makes the point that our personal vulnerabilities will come into play in our decision-making whenever we are facing a situation where we feel threatened, under the pump, attacked or exposed to potential harm: in other words, when we are taking risks. This isn’t even a conscious choice; it’s an automatic reaction to the situation we find ourselves in. However, we can be mindful of this effect by being aware of the role vulnerability plays and taking this into account in the decision-making process.  

People who relate to vulnerability in a healthy way not only become aware of the role it plays in risk-taking, they commonly leverage the power of being vulnerable to build relationships and generate trust. They also don’t let other people’s opinions of them hold them back, all critical traits when taking risks, being creative and innovating. On the other hand, those with an unhealthy relationship with vulnerability won’t recognise their vulnerabilities showing up. They might have a habit of deferring or avoiding action, making decisions or taking risks, especially if they feel it may damage their reputation. An unhealthy relationship with vulnerability can also show up in bravado and overconfidence, which can be equally if not more devastating, especially when calculating risks. 

A method that helps me visualise the health of one's relationship with any Aspect of Being (in this case vulnerability) is to think of it as having the form of a bell, and I am shining a torch on it. This is a metaphorical way of describing what the Being Profile® assessment tool does. If the way we relate to a particular Aspect of Being is close to the crown of the bell, the torch light will always be on it. This would be considered healthy. But if the way we relate to a particular Aspect of Being is located at the lip of the bell, our relationship would be deemed unhealthy. Our torchlight will leave some part of the lip in the dark. How this unhealthy relationship will manifest itself will vary depending on the perspective of the bell you have. But for the sake of this exercise, we’ll consider the bell to be two-dimensional. 

In the case of vulnerability, an unhealthy relationship with this Aspect of Being on one side of the bell might make us silly enough to believe we’re invulnerable, as many men and a growing number of women think they need to be to avoid appearing weak. This would be ignoring a first-layer reality like gravity; if you are human, the indisputable fact is you are vulnerable. The longer you persist in ignoring this reality, the higher the price you will pay.

Living in denial of vulnerability will not only affect your willingness and ability to take calculated risks, but it will also affect your life outcomes. At this end of the spectrum, in terms of your health with vulnerability, you may be perceived as inauthentic as you carefully manage how you are being perceived by people you meet to avoid any hint of appearing vulnerable, which you perceive as a weakness. This means you are being inauthentic, and this inauthenticity will be noticed and influence how trustworthy you are perceived to be. In turn, the costs will imperceptibly start mounting up in all aspects of your life. The guy or girl you fancy may get an uneasy feeling about you; your boss or business partner might think, “They’re holding back, covering something up”, because you are! Worse still is how this game of pretence is affecting you and possibly your nearest and dearest. Being invulnerable is exhausting! Invulnerable men (and women) at this end of the vulnerability spectrum who have a poor relationship with vulnerability will typically create a self-image honouring how tough they are, or perhaps how much power they wield or their status or social standing. 

If we move our metaphorical torch to the other side of our bell, the shadow is cast on a very different version of unhealthy. Here we find the chronic oversharers, with tales of woes and an appalling opinion of themselves. They struggle to muster the courage and personal responsibility needed to take action to change their lives and the lives of others for the better. They often believe themselves to be unworthy and incapable of doing right, so they just give up. Humans in this category are often victims of trauma. Further, this version of an unhealthy relationship with vulnerability is equally destructive to various aspects of life; it offers no way out of one’s misery. Many people on this side of the bell will inevitably find themselves being taken for granted or overlooked, especially in the employment, business and romance stakes. Again trust is the issue, but for the polar opposite reason. Others will invariably ask themselves, “Does this person have the resilience I need in a romantic partner, employee or business partner? Do they know how to take risks, and do they have the courage to try? Or are they too caught up in what others think of them to dare to take a risk and have a go?” 

Creating a life of fulfillment and joy professionally and personally while having an unhealthy relationship with vulnerability on either end of the spectrum is impossible. Humans at both ends often mask their pain by acting out in anti-social ways or imbibing intoxicating substances enabling them to escape the misery of their circumstances. Needless to say, the impact of this behaviour on taking risks is far from healthy. By becoming aware of the unhealthy ways we may relate to vulnerability, we can develop ourselves and our relationship with this powerful but misunderstood and undervalued quality. 

In my experience in business management and as a leadership coach, I have found that a person’s relationship with vulnerability also has a powerful impact on how others perceive them as a leader. When someone in authority presents as either lacking in confidence or overconfident, they struggle to engender trust from their team. However, being conscious of the need to show vulnerability by relating to the team's problems and concerns in a realistic manner allows the team to see their leader as human. While they may not have all the answers right there and then, they at least have the team's attention. How the situation pans out from then on comes down to their technical competence as a leader. 

Risk equals reward! Where would the world be without the great creatives, artists and artisans, who all took risks to produce and share their works? It is worth noting many of the masterpieces we so revere today were deemed by critics of their time to be utter disasters. The great artists, composers and inventors were not immune to the risk of criticism and failure; they were criticised, and they failed, sometimes multiple times! But a healthy relationship with vulnerability enabled them to find the courage to carry on to our great benefit. 

Conversely, many disasters are created by an unwillingness to recognise and account for vulnerability, whether it be an unwillingness to speak the truth to power or the reverse, where the message is dismissed because it is ‘inconvenient’. Man-made disasters, including global warming, are evidence of why we must value vulnerability and the courage it brings to take risks. Without a collective healthy relationship with vulnerability, we will achieve nothing at best. If you would like to know more about how your relationship with vulnerability is affecting your life, get in touch with me. I’d be happy to be your guide. 

OntologyInfluenceProductivityBeing ProfileBeingVision

John Williams

About The Author

John's skills lay in ensuring you are operating at your peak so you can honour the commitment you’ve made to yourself and Be the leader you were born to be. Leaving school at 17, he went straight into the workforce. By 23, he was a General Manager. He climbed to the top of his profession as a senior manager in a billion dollar, multinational trading company where he simultaneously led projects in Europe, Asia, America and back in his home in Australia. In his 40’s, he earned an EMBA, studied negotiation at Harvard Business School, and gained a Professional Certificate in Arbitration. He is a son, husband, father, step father and grandfather who for over 30 years has been studying what makes some people successful while others are stuck in ever decreasing loops. What he has discovered is that we need to go beyond what we’re ‘doing’ and look at who we are ‘Being’.

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