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Vulnerability and Courage in Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Lori L. Hardesty
July 22, 2020

Some might consider “vulnerability” a bad word, the antithesis of leadership. As a leader (a coach, manager, chair, etc.), have you ever been told to just, “Act like you know?” Jim Harter’s recent Gallup article titled, “How Leaders Are Responding to COVID-19 Workplace Disruption,” describes staff having four needs: trust, compassion, stability and hope. One strategy to accomplish this is for leaders to have a clear plan. In this time of uncertainty, where do we begin?

Ready, set, go?

I am a leader at a public institution of higher education that embraces its community of inquiring minds. In mid-March, classes shut down, and university-sanctioned applied learning experiences were canceled as our nonprofit and K-12 school partners scrambled to meet community needs. My team and I spent the subsequent spring break practicing online collaborative learning and communication strategies to provide stability and structure for students upon their return. My 11-year-old daughter became my “Technology DJ.” This stop-gap sufficed for the remainder of March while the world watched the pandemic unfold.

A Knotty Stomach and Achy Back

Life turned upside down at home and at work…which was at home. My self-doubt and anxiety prevailed and grief abounded for what was lost: connection, celebration and life. I worried about balancing work/school schedules and spaces with my husband and our daughters (5th and 7th graders). Their teachers were doing their best, many juggling their own families. In video meetings, I was constantly distracted by my look of concern. My back hurt from extended sitting in my grandmother’s dining room chair at my makeshift office in the corner of the basement. I felt like I was doing half the work but working twice as hard. I needed to dig in, and dig in fast.

A Bloated Sponge

I read. I found articles on Facebook and local and national network news. Features on gender roles in family management and the decreased number of journal articles submitted by women were abundant. I absorbed leadership strategies in times of crisis. Greater transparency in reporting spotlighted the clear racial disparities of the coronavirus. I participated in webinars and breakout sessions on these topics. The stress was exhausting. I needed to do some looking inwards.  

Welcome, Guests!

In April, I joined a Mindfulness & Creativity course on Saturday mornings, sponsored by a local arts alliance. Facilitator Phillip McKnight introduced valuable resources to our community of learners. In his poem, “The Guest House,” 13th century poet Rumi emphasized treating thoughts, feelings and emotions as if we were welcoming guests into our home, greeting them with curiosity. We gave them gratitude and loving kindness to ourselves. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way promoted daily morning pages and the artist date to understand our unique path to a higher creativity. “Leadership” was my art; I planned dates to explore it. Before the household wakes, I practice this self-care, meditating for ten minutes, and writing freely for at least ten minutes afterwards. It centers me before my day begins.

I Rumbled Away

In June, I joined a campus-wide wellness initiative to immerse myself in a 5-part book discussion on Brené Brown’s, “Rising Strong: How The Ability To Reset Transform The Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” The courage to be vulnerable is a gift to understand. We show our humanity, create opportunities for connection and choose discomfort over comfort. I rumbled in the murky middle with emotions and fears. I have an excellent backstroke in issues like “blame,” feeling like the victim in a challenging situation. This work was about how I carry myself in the world through self-worth and healthy boundary-setting. We lead a better life when we believe that people are doing the best they can.

It Wasn’t Pretty

I talk to my children when they are clearly “feeling a certain kind of way.” In a June check-in meeting with my supervisor, I articulated the Rising Strong’s, “Sloppy First Draft” (SFD), the story in my head about a work-related challenge. Apparently, I have enormous “stew and brew” talent. My supervisor patiently listened. A few weeks later, I processed feelings of self-doubt through another SFD. She mentioned a TED Talk that acknowledges the uncertainty that she feels in campus and partnership planning. “Is the speaker Brené Brown?” Indeed it was, five years before Ms. Brown would finish this transformative book that promotes trust in ourselves and in others.

No More Status Quo

Many want life to return to normal. There’s an urgency to reset “normal” through a race equity lens. In this election year, candidates share priorities and plans to appeal to voters. As leaders, we manage major personal and workplace decisions to include school openings, budget management, health and safety, etc. Election outcomes may or may not impact these challenges. We should develop our own toolkit of self-awareness and growth mindset, giving ourselves grace in this unprecedented time. This vulnerability is not weakness, but rather the desire to expand our minds. By doing so, we encourage our employees to be their best selves. Now, more than ever, we need to transform the talk into action, together.


Author: Lori L. Hardesty, MPA, is the Associate Director of Applied Learning & Community Engagement at The Shriver Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). She teaches a Community Service & Learning Practicum, directs the Shriver Living Learning Community, and France-Merrick Scholarship Program. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from Johns Hopkins University and MPA from the University of Baltimore. Email [email protected].

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