Vulnerability, the Advantage of Leaders Who Don’t Pretend

When facing adversity, when a poor decision was made, when things did not go as planned, just smile, pretend everything’s alright like this little Shiba Inu stuck in a bush…right?
Well, not exactly.
At least not if you want to be an effective leader. Not if you want to lead sustainable change. And not if you want to get unstuck.
Somewhere along the way we began to tell ourselves the story that good leaders always make the right decision and are not prone to mistakes or shortcomings. Glorified stories of entrepreneurs and leaders who seem to have it all together abound, of those who had an ambitious vision, got everyone on board, and converted it to action that changed industry, community, and lives. Against this standard of perfection/filtered reality, it is easy for leaders to face a sinking feeling; we could never be like that.
We play it safe, making incremental improvements, but not really challenging the tough stuff: the entrenched practices, and deeply rooted traditions, the very things that may need to be questioned to redesign learning for our modern goals and aspirations.

Sketchagons of the Fullan & Kirtman 7 Leadership Competencies by Tracy Clark

Authors Michael Fullan and Lyle Kirtman provide a research-based framework of 7 competencies for leaders pursuing systemic change in their book, Leadership: Key Competencies for Whole-System Change. First up on the list, leaders of whole system change, challenge the status quo.


For educational leaders, setting out to challenge the status quo in a system filled with entrenched practices and powerful inertia, we have to recognize where we are, how we got there, and where we want to go. We must recognize what traditions, practices, routines, and behaviors in our schools are keeping us stuck, a part of the status quo. We must be honest, and, at times, step out in vulnerability to create systemic change.
Michael Fullan and Lyle Kirtman explore these seven competencies and the current educational leadership environment in a recent episode of the Getting Smart podcast with Director of Knowledge Design, Carri Schneider.

One case study discussed in the interview drew my attention. A school leader of a struggling campus decided to shift her focus away from compliance and rule following and instead used the approach Fullan and Kirtman outline in their book. During the interview Kirtman describes the outcome, “She did the opposite of what the state and federal government said to do to improve her school, she did it the way we talked about it right away… and she had a 60% increase in student achievement.”

Intrigued by the potential connection between being vulnerable and leading systemic change I decided to reach out to my professional learning network and see what others thought. I asked educational leaders to reflect on this thinking prompt. Vulnerability is like _____ because ____. Followed up with–What makes you say that?

In my own reflections I realized I used to think vulnerability was something to be avoided, especially in situations where I was leading others, now I think it is something to lean into, get curious about and rumble with (thank you Brené). It is something that can help us stop all the pretending, silence the lizard voice, and do the work that matters for our students.
So eduleaders, if you find yourself stuck in a bush, smiling when you know you are ten feet above a road, here are a couple ideas to consider inspired by Fullan and Kirtman:

1. Admit that you are stuck in a bush

You cannot establish clear, honest communication and trust with people who know you are stuck in a bush and not admitting it. Furthermore you show the team what you value when you put your pride aside to admit you are stuck.

2. Analyze the actions and behaviors that got you there

Maybe your whole district is stuck in the shrubs smiling. It is time to challenge the status quo. If you could do a ctrl+alt+delete on the current way teaching and learning takes place or the hiring system or the carpool line… what would it look like? What are the routines and traditions that may be worth challenging to improve the system?

3. Find some friends to help you get out of the bush

Create networks and partnerships, folks who will help you out when you are stuck in the bush or even better, help you avoid it in the first place.

4. Make a plan to get out of the bush

With your team and networks in place, create a commonly owned plan. Make sure your team is clear on the plan and believes in it. Imagine this little canine being pushed instead of pulled out of the bush and landing ten feet down after a miscommunication. Leaders are also prepared to adjust the plan based on new data.

5. Remember, bushes come in all shapes and sizes

So you are out of the bush. Stay humble my friend. Commit to on-going improvement and growth for yourself and your team/organization.

6. If you do end up in a bush again, don’t hang out

If you are out fighting the status quo, there will be another bush, but we won’t find you in it smiling pretending everything is ok right? No, there will be a sense of urgency to your efforts to leave that shrub behind and create sustainable change.
“Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” –Brené Brown
For more blogs by Tracy, check out:

Feature image source @yamamochi223

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