I gathered with a group of leaders at a lakefront conference center. Spectacular in summer, January in northern Michigan meant the event coordinators found an off-season price. Our theme was “gaining value via vulnerability.” As I shivered in the cold, I struggled to find value in vulnerability. Yet Brené Brown, in her landmark book, Daring Greatly, writes, “Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional.”
We weren’t a vulnerable conference group. We affirmed our identity from rank and titles. We couldn’t share a conversation without making ourselves the successful protagonist. After dinner, our homework was to, “discover and practice a non-threatening way of expressing vulnerability.” Sensing too much personal risk, my alternative was escape. I discovered a small bowling alley. Three other attendees were already hiding there. One pointed to me and simply said, “Here is our fourth bowler.” Reluctantly I joined their group. The game proceeded like every other time I’ve bowled. By the 9th frame, the experienced were in the 200’s and the novices were under 100. My ego bruised, I felt tension having the lowest score.
After the game, frigid outside air gave us reason to remain huddled in our curved plastic bowling seats. One colleague said, “Let’s try this again, but with our opposite hand.” Left-hand bowling? It seemed absurd. It also became our connection point. The four of us became instantaneously and equally vulnerable. We were terrible. No one broke two digits in ten frames. We howled and laughed and stumbled and high-fived one another toward yet another gutter ball. Suddenly we got the point: “Discover and practice a non-threatening way of expressing vulnerability.”
Consider assigning this homework to your group. It starts with finding an activity where no one has expertise. Left hand bowling is a simple equivalent to the ropes course or the “trust fall.” Discover activities that build credibility and confidence through shared experiences where everyone is equally vulnerable. As Patrick Lencioni writes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “… in the course of career-advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. It is a challenge for them to turn those instances off for the good of a team, but that is exactly what is required.”
If you seek a high-performance ethically-based leadership team, find something you aren’t good at, and simply do it!