Role-modeling strength and vulnerability

Last week, I sent my daughter off to college.  I dropped her and my husband off at the San Francisco airport—she is going to school in Washington DC, and my husband and I agreed that he would handle the logistics and heavy labor of move-in, I handled the main bulk of helping her prepare and pack, and both of us would attend parents’ weekend in October.

My daughter is loving, fierce, driven, funny, sweet. Her achievements are formidable; her rages are towering; her collapses into sadness and frustration and angst, startling and primal. Our wills have crossed swords more times than I care to remember, and sometimes I found the role of mother to her to be exhausting and draining. I love her and admire her beyond speech.

At the drop-off, we stacked her many bags, I moved towards the curb to return to the car, and I paused, and she and I looked at each other, and our faces crumpled and we threw ourselves into each other’s arms and sobbed and sobbed our love and gratitude for each other. With crowds of people all around us, and my husband waiting there, a painful locked expression on his face.

As I thought about that moment, afterwards, (that is, when I could think about it, rationally and without breaking down into tears again), I wondered, not for the first time, what type of role model I’ve been for my daughter. And I wondered, not for the first time, whether I’ve not only role-modeled strength for her, but also, acceptance of her own vulnerability, those moments when one can do nothing else but show one’s true emotions.

I come from a long line of warrior women. My grandmother was a tiny, take-no-prisoners woman who escaped from North Korea with her small children without the assistance of her husband, my grandfather, who was already working for the South Korean army and sent word that they had to cross the border, NOW. By the time I knew her, she was small and wrinkled and fragile-boned, in her sixties, yet she still asked me to teach her how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle when she first came to America. She could cook, farm, breed puppies, pack things into tiny shapes, and kill vermin, all without turning a hair, as the old saying goes.

My mother, too, was fearsomely accomplished: she was a practicing physician and an insanely good cook, she could sew and knit and garden and she made sure my sister and I were always clothed and fed well. Both my grandmother and mother adopted the Korean way of being submissive to their husbands while exercising influence behind the scenes, but really, they were take-no-shit women in almost every aspect of their lives.

Being raised by warrior women did not teach me about when it was okay to show vulnerability. The submissiveness my mother and grandmother displayed in front of their spouses were presented to me as a mere façade that needed to be maintained, as a part of the culture. And I found that I struggled with the notion of whether I could or couldn’t show vulnerability in any setting, and most especially the workplace. I was flagged early on in my career to ascend the leadership and management ladder. I think I was flagged because I was extremely productive, like my mother and grandmother—I got shit done—and also because I was good at helping people. If I committed to writing a first draft for you, by god, you’d get that first draft on time, and it would be good. If I committed to staffing a senior executive for an event, I’d do everything from write the words of the speech to carrying that person’s briefcase for them.

But I was not very good at asking for help. This was not as much of an issue when I was in the more junior stages of my career; the outputs of my jobs then were more under my own control and I firmly believed that I could produce almost anything, under my own steam. But as I advanced in my career, work problems got hairier and more complicated. There were many situations that I later learned were fairly typical for the workplace, and so it should have been an early instinct to go and ask the advice of others more experienced than me. Instead, I’d try to struggle on alone. Because I was afraid that asking for help, and demonstrating how much something was affecting me, was just plain wrong.

A few observations about vulnerability in the workplace:

–I used to equate asking for help as an admission of vulnerability, and thinking about it now, I don’t necessarily believe that’s true. I think asking for help can be a strength: a demonstration of self-awareness that says, “I understand the boundaries of my knowledge and experience, and am smart enough to not venture beyond those boundaries without help and guidance.” Also, a former boss and mentor once told me: many people like being asked for help. It makes them feel worthwhile. So you are doing them a favor by asking.

–And if asking for help is an admission of vulnerability, I can see how the admission gives you agency and power in ways that masking the vulnerability and muddling along doesn’t. There’s a very popular series of TED talks by a research professor named Brene Brown who talks about this, the “power” that comes from being all-in, from being vulnerable.

–I am enormously grateful for the fact that many times, people gave me help and advice even when I didn’t ask for it. Meaning, if I was trying to bluff my way out of a thorny situation with a show of strength, my friends and mentors would see right through my bluff and discreetly and graciously offer me love, wisdom from their similar experiences, bracing guidance. They wouldn’t force me to ask for help or admit vulnerability. They’d simply show up, listen, and share.

–Despite the power of showing vulnerability, I can see how showing too much vulnerability in the workplace, like any other behavior, is not a good thing. Let’s say a crisis situation hits an organization where I’m in the senior ranks. The people who report to me, who know me as a senior leader, are they depending on me to not fall apart and to stay strong and guide them through crisis moments? I would argue, absolutely yes.

–But at the same time, do senior leaders go way overboard in struggling to contain their emotions, driven out of fear of not appearing vulnerable to others, to the point where they lose connection to the people who work for them and with them? I would also argue, yes.

–I feel like I need to say this even though it seems so obvious: showing vulnerability in the workplace feels more consequential—not in a good way—for women than it does for men. Women are already far more likely to receive personality-driven feedback than men in the workplace; it is not a stretch to imagine that we’ve assimilated a message to be strong at all costs, which then leads to us getting criticized for being too hard, too bitchy, too controlling. It’s definitely a vicious cycle and as far as I can tell from all the zeitgeist I track, the only person who seems to have cracked the code is Sheryl Sandberg. Also Ava DuVernay.

So I guess, returning to the question of role-modeling strength and vulnerability for my daughter—because I have no doubt that she’s headed for some type of leadership role in school and in her work life—I hope, most of all, that I’ve taught her to value both. I hope that she gains experience in learning about the times and places where demonstrating strength, or vulnerability, or both, would help her AND the people around her. And I hope that I can also teach her, if I haven’t already, about how to forgive yourself when you feel like you went waaay too far in one direction or another. Because you just couldn’t help it. Because you were being authentic, no matter how messy and extreme it might have felt to you or to others. If you are in a workplace with people you trust and value not just on work projects but also in deeply personal ways, then they will understand. And even, perhaps, see you as a stronger leader for being able to move through it and past it.