A human brand and my vulnerability journey


Vulnerability is a hot topic these days. I’m seeing this connection between vulnerability and leadership in all types of business literature and posts.

So it’s not surprising that in conversations about creating a more human brand, vulnerability is often a primary topic of discussion. The other day, a person I was helping on a coaching call mentioned that he appreciated how vulnerable and empathetic I seemed.

You may be surprised that vulnerability was definitely a learned trait for me. I am not an open person by nature, let alone a vulnerable one. I thought this might be an interesting subject to cover since I believe that some measure of vulnerability is essential in business and leadership today, especially in this prolonged period of pandemic suffering and crisis.

Can vulnerability be learned? Yes.

Here is my journey.

Big boys don’t cry

I grew up in a stoic family. None of my parents or grandparents showed much emotion and “big boys don’t cry” was a central idea of manhood in our family culture.

Even as an adult, if I was ever in a situation where I thought I would be emotional, I would get nauseous from holding the tears in. I would have to leave the room if I felt any strong emotions coming on. When I watched the Space Shuttle Challenger explode on live television, I sobbed in a clothes closet so people could not see my tears.

When I was in my 30s I was part of a training program for emerging company executives. Part of the session was focused on dealing with conflict in the workplace. In one small breakout meeting, one of my friends started talking about a horrific period in her life when she had been serially abused.

Every person in the room was crying during this staggering revelation except me. I was in this small circle of chairs and had no escape route. I thought I would literally throw up from the strain of holding my emotions in check.

Despite the emotional field in the room, or maybe because of it, people could tell something was wrong with me. My friend, who had shared her moving story of suffering and recovery, asked me directly what was wrong.

“I just wanted you to stop crying,” I said. “I have a hard time being here right now listening to this story.”

My friend looked at me with compassion and said something that changed my whole life view. “If I was laughing, would you want me to stop? If I was angry, would you be uncomfortable? Crying is just an expression of normal human emotion. Why would I stop?”

Something stirred in me and I knew she was right. There was something wrong with me if got physically ill when confronted with a normal human emotion.

This revelation led to much introspection and a determination to NOT pass this trait on to my own small children. I went home and announced to my wife that at some point that week I would be intentionally crying in front of the children to show them that it was OK to show sad emotions. And I did.

Vulnerability and the social media age

Thank goodness for that life lesson. But I was still not what you would call a person who led with their heart. Rising in the ranks of a Fortune 100 company led by engineers and accountants, I was definitely conditioned to keep my emotions in check.

This created a lot of internal angst 12 years ago when I left my corporate job, started my own company, and immersed myself in this world of social media. Social media success was all about transparency and emotional connection and I felt entirely out of place.

My early content was really buttoned up. What I was doing, what I was feeling, was nobody’s business.

Then I saw a simple Facebook post that changed me again. One of my earliest social media friends was the great PR thought leader Gini Dietrich, a person I admire and look up to still today. About 10 or 11 years ago she posted a little video of a family Thanksgiving celebration. It was an authentic moment of pure joy. I knew that this openness and the beauty of the moment helped me connect to Gini in an emotional way. So simple, but so powerful.

Why couldn’t I be like that?

Strategic authenticity

I was determined to try to follow Gini’s example and push myself to open up.

I began to disclose a little bit about myself, learning along the way by just watching Gini and a few other social media friends. It was so uncomfortable. But I found that every time I took a risk and showed a bit of my true self I was rewarded.

When I showed up in an open and human way, people would respond like:

  • “How did you know I was going through the same thing today?”
  • “You must have been reading my mind. I’m having the same issue.”
  • “Thank you for sharing. I needed this today.”

Over time this feedback encouraged me to be braver and more comfortable. Today, I would characterize my online presence as  “strategically authentic.” I am not an over-sharer, I’m still pretty private, but I do believe that the people who follow me and trust me deserve to know what I’m made of and what I stand for. I am a work in progress. Always will be. I keep pushing forward.

The biggest risk of all

Ten years into my social media journey, I took my biggest vulnerability risk of all in my book KNOWN: The handbook for building and unleashing your personal brand in the digital age.

In the first chapter, I reveal how my journey toward developing a personal brand started at the lowest point in my life. I thought it was important to be honest and let people know I was not always on top of a social media mountain. If I could start something from that low point, maybe my readers could, too.

I cut that story out of the book and put it back in at least 50 times. It was nerve-wracking to disclose something so personal. But I’ve learned that sensing my internal fear is also a signal for me to push ahead. It means I’m growing in some way.

For the first time, I publicly disclosed something deeply personal … and I didn’t die in the process! That was a huge milestone.

Vulnerability means balance

I think a great challenge for any person or brand today is presenting a balanced human experience.

Long ago I saw research that showed that the primary emotion people experience when looking at a Facebook timeline is jealousy. We all tend to show our shiny best selves. The amazing beach vacations, the wholesome children, the perfectly plated meals. No wonder people are jealous!

I am always sensitive to this reality and how it relates to my own audience. I want to show up as a whole person and provide a balanced view.

An example from last week — a very good week. I noted on Facebook that Marketing Rebellion now had more than 200 five-star reviews, I gave several prestigious keynote addresses including a university distinguished speaker lecture, and my Instagram account featured beautiful fall pictures from my home.

Yet, this is not the whole story of my life right now. Like nearly everyone, I’m trying to hold things together in a pandemic. To bring some balance to the emotional equation, I posted this short audio message:

Audio message on emotional balance

For brands to achieve some level of human connection through vulnerability, one challenge will be displaying emotional balance. A few years ago a company founder blogged openly about his perceived failure as a leader when he had to lay off employees. To me, that is a heroic commentary that I will never forget. Ads … I will probably forget. Honest human emotion, I don’t.

The most human company wins™

I suppose in some way, being able to write a book with a subtitle “The Most Human Company Wins” demonstrates the progress of my vulnerability journey and emphasis on more heart-led communications.

But I’m still learning and especially excited to see how many companies are using the ideas in my book to transform their marketing presence. I’m always on the lookout for great case studies to share, so if your company is doing something exceptional, let me know and maybe you’ll be in a blog post or a book some day!

Becoming more vulnerable is more than a marketing strategy. It requires a company cultural change and that can be exceedingly difficult.

I recently saw an excellent article by Amy C. Edmondson and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in the Harvard Business Review and I wanted to summarize a few of their important tips for the vulnerability transition.

Start by telling the truth. Share your candid perspective with others, what you know, and what you don’t know. Although it is easy to tell people what they want to hear, the best leaders tell people the truth, no matter how difficult. Being open about your weaknesses is the ultimate sign of strength.

Ask for help. Leadership is not heroic. It is not about the actual person in charge; rather, it is unlocking the forces that bring people together as a team. This requires you to be honest about your vulnerabilities and your need for their support. This authenticity will increase commitment to you and make your team stronger.

Go outside your comfort zone. One of the reasons so many people fail to develop into highly effective leaders is that they operate on autopilot by repeating what has worked in the past. This is why playing to your own strengths can be a recipe for disaster: Unless you work on your defects, you won’t develop new skills. Yes, this will make you seem vulnerable in the short term because your performance will always suffer when you are learning a new skill or behavior. But it can only make you stronger in the long term.

When you make a mistake, admit it and apologize. When you do so, no matter how disappointed people are, they will appreciate your honesty and trust you more than if you lie to them.

I hope I’ve provided some ideas that can be a spark a move forward in your own vulnerability journey. I would love to hear about your progress and victories as you work toward a more human, personal, and vulnerable company presence.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of several best-selling digital marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy of Unsplash.com

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