On Vulnerability

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The leadership literature, both conductor-specific and general (which, come to think of it, I usually read through the lens of the conductor’s role), often talks about the importance of allowing yourself to be vulnerable as a means to inspire trust. This is usually framed in terms of admitting when you don’t know something, or that you need help.

All of which, on the face of it is perfectly reasonable. A leader doesn’t have to be omniscient or infallible to be effective – which is just as well given that human beings are typically neither. And I’ve always read these pronouncements with a degree of complacency, since I am very comfortable sharing my fallibility. I’ve known myself long enough to know how well developed my capacity for truly dumb errors is, and am endlessly grateful when people spot them for me.

Now, you might notice an implicit contradiction in the foregoing paragraph. I appear to have just said that I’m very comfortable showing vulnerability. But last time I checked ‘vulnerable’ and ‘comfortable’ were, if not quite direct antonyms, far from being the same thing.

I noticed this friction recently when I experienced an intense feeling of vulnerability at the prospect of putting myself out there with a claim for specific expertise in an area in which I don’t have an established track record. Being self-deprecating about it would be the safe thing to do, as it would effectively be managing people’s expectations downwards. Standing up and saying, ‘Yes I can do this,’ would be much more scary, as it invites judgement, and - in the event of failure or mediocrity - opprobrium.

And it occurred to me to wonder if these contrasting ways of experiencing vulnerability were in part gendered. We know from the phenomenon of mansplaining that some manifestations of masculinity appear to entail the assertion of one’s expertise (about whatever, and irrespective of whether the person you are talking to is in fact more expert). If that is the expectation you have of yourself, then admitting that you don’t know something might well leave you feeling somewhat defenceless. Your assumption (and/or presumption) of authority is your psychological shield.

Whilst women quite readily develop expertise, we don’t necessarily experience it as a protective covering in the same way. Not least because our expertise, even when objectively unassailable, is constantly being undermined (see under ‘mansplaining’ above). Impostor syndrome is not an exclusively female condition, but it is a rational response to the drip-feed of condescension and being ignored that makes up so much of our formative experience.

Indeed, the more conspicuously expert one gets as a woman, the more probable it is that someone is going to try to take you down. Sometimes in the form of direct attack (nasty flashback to a bruising questioning by a senior academic after a conference paper shortly after I finished by PhD); sometimes with sleazier tactics (sexual harassment is a time-honoured way to stop women feeling safe where men want to keep hold of power).

Hence, it makes sense for women to feel dangerously exposed at the point of asserting their authority, rather than at the point of relinquishing it. The leadership literature is still wise to suggest that we inspire trust by being open about our humanity – our feelings, our needs, our imperfections – but we should note that for some of us, this isn’t necessarily the aspect of leadership that makes us feel vulnerable.

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