Conversations about leadership, learning, coaching and change.

Vulnerability AND strength: The walls we build

Vulnerability AND strength: The walls we build

by Moyra Mackie on March 21, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about defensiveness this week. About how and why we build the walls we do and what the impact of this is on ourselves and our relationships at home and at work.

We build walls because they protect us

The town I live in has a castle dating back to the 11th century and spending some time there yesterday it struck me that groups of people have been building metaphorical and actual walls for centuries.

Before I continue, you might be expecting a castle like this:

Vulnerability, the walls we build

When Berkhamsted Castle actually now looks like this:

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons. Attribution: Winstainforth at the English language Wikipedia

Its current state belies a muscular history that began when the victorious French king, William the Conqueror, accepted the English surrender after the Battle of Hastings.

We build walls out of a desire to both control and protect

Yesterday, as I stood against the rough flint exterior, I noticed the cold in the shadow of the high stone wall, eclipsing the view of the sky above. These walls, together with the moat and the other earthwork defences were designed to keep people safe at a time of great doubt and insecurity.  And it must have been formidably difficult to attempt to attack this place.

The trouble is your protection can become your prison

Which is what happened in Berkhamsted in 1216 when the castle came under siege for two weeks and eventually the occupants had to surrender.

As I sat on the hill overlooking what is now a rather benign scene I remembered a client – who I will call Daniel – who came to my office for coaching.

Change and insecurity trigger defensiveness 

Daniel was a senior leader, under a lot of pressure as his organisation went through another upheaval.  He had a new manager who he didn’t trust and some of his network had gone in the last round of redundancies.

He told me how he and his team were coping, in an increasingly agitated manner, his words falling over themselves in the hurry to be heard.  A strong image came to mind which I shared with him.

“It seems to me that you’ve retreated to your castle, you’ve pulled up the drawbridge, climbed those stairs and locked yourself in the highest tower, where you feel safe.”

He paused and smiled.  Very often metaphors, presented in a non-judgmental way, can help a client to “see” more clearly.

“I’m also wearing armour, you didn’t mention the armour.”

“Ah-ha, Ok.  And how does that feel?”

A long pause.

“Pretty uncomfortable…especially sitting down,” he ended with a smile.

“But you feel safe?”

“Not when I think about it now with you. I realise I’ve locked my team out.  They’re not in the room”

I waited and watched him as he reflected on the image he was seeing.

“And the thing is they [who he perceived as his enemies] could starve me out or just go round me and leave me here.”

In allowing himself to have this insight, Daniel had to do the very opposite of what his instinct was telling him.

To get to change you have to lower your defences, not raise them

Daniel had taken his suit of armour off.  He had spotted that protection could be the very opposite of strength.  It was only then that we could have a conversation about all the possibilities Daniel and his team had if he could see things differently.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

We give up our power if we run or blame

Brené Brown again:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Daniel had found the beginning of his path; he’d discovered options and ideas that he wanted to share with his team.

Nothing grows in the shadow of a high wall

It’s so easy to build a wall from our self-limiting beliefs or sets of assumptions.  While we might be protecting ourselves, we’re also stopping ourselves from growing and from experiencing fully the emotions that Brené Brown talks about.

I catch myself building a wall whenever I hear my inner voice whisper:

“I’m not good enough….”

Or, even more toxic:

“I think I’m better than….”

I’ve realised that if competition becomes about winning, then the flipside is fear of losing

The successful individuals and teams who come for coaching are often carrying this within them:

“What if we fail?”

The first step is having the courage to show up and begin to talk about it.  Sharing something about ourselves can be hard. Sharing our ideas or our work, can be even tougher, because it’s a part of ourselves we can easily be judged on.

This week, Seth Godin, sent his battering ram to knock down one of my own defensive walls when he urged us to “Show your work”

“It’s tempting to sit in the corner and then, voila, to amaze us all with your perfect answer.

But of course, that’s not what ever works.

What works is evolving in public, with the team. Showing your work. Thinking out loud. Failing on the way to succeeding, imperfecting on your way to better than good enough…

Ship before you’re ready, because you will never be ready. Ready implies you know it’s going to work, and you can’t know that. You should ship when you’re prepared, when it’s time to show your work, but not a minute later.

The purpose isn’t to please the critics. The purpose is to make your work better.

Polish with your peers, your true fans, the market. Because when we polish together, we make better work.”

In other words, invite people in, don’t lock them out

I immediately realised that there have been so many projects I’ve embarked upon thinking I have to make a big splash at the beginning; that I have to have polished things all by myself.

Share what you’re working on and what you’re struggling with

Daniel did.  A few weeks after our coaching session, I visited him at his office and saw that his screen saver was an image of a spectacular castle surrounded by water.  I commented on it and he said that he had told his team about our conversation and that they were working together on how to thrive in the new organisation.

They were polishing together.  Without walls.

I wonder what walls you build and what new possibilities you would discover if you knocked them down?


If you like what you’ve read, please share and sign up for regular posts delivered straight to your inbox.

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:

Back to top | Back to home