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Courageous leaders step into risk and uncertainty without holding back

“I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

Working in rural telemedicine creates daily opportunities for risk and uncertainty. Nothing is cut and dried. Things that used to be simple, like walking a patient over to the emergency department, now involve EMS, complex family relationships, and several hours of patient transit time. Decision-making feels more complicated, and it takes longer to determine if my assessment is accurate.

There is no instant gratification. It feels vulnerable.

I recently called our ED to inform the physician that I was sending a patient her way. Her response was terse, and she questioned my judgment. It was Friday afternoon, and the ED was hopping. I was painfully aware that I was a psychologist with no medical training and felt so small at that moment.

Dr. Lucy Houghton shares about courage and vulnerability.

I felt embarrassed and worried that I might be totally off base in my assessment, using resources that could have been better allocated elsewhere. I felt exposed. And you better believe that the first thing I did Monday morning was to check the status of my patient. Yes, I was concerned about the patient’s welfare, but if I’m being honest, I was more concerned about my reputation.

Did I make the right call? Or will this doc forever think of me as an idiot? It turns out that I was spot on, and my patient got the urgent treatment he needed. But if I’d been wrong, and let’s be honest, I’ve been wrong many times, it would have been an emotional blow.

Working in healthcare is vulnerable. It is a calling that asks us to bring our whole emotional self into complicated situations where there is the risk of death, injury, and perhaps worst of all, the risk of being caught making a mistake and being exposed as a “failure” to our colleagues.

Being a psychologist calls for present focus and emotional vulnerability. But there have been many times when I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to take the safe route to protect myself, preserve my emotional energy, and manage how I look to the people around me.

On one level, protecting myself makes sense. I don’t feel hurt if I don’t emotionally invest. It doesn’t matter as much if I’m wrong if I wasn’t that invested in the situation. I can’t be rejected if I’m not being seen. But I also miss out on the richness and fulfillment of real-life interactions with complex and suffering people. And at the end of the day, when I’ve done my best to preserve my emotional energy, I find myself more exhausted and cynical, not less.

Limiting my emotional investment at work does not give me more energy to invest in my family. But it’s tough to let go of my stubborn desire to be stingy, to stay safe, and to conserve my resources.

Maybe you’ve had this experience too.

Reading Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and “wholeheartedness” puts my challenges with vulnerability into perspective. This is a human challenge. And it’s a leadership challenge.

You can’t lead others if you’re armored up all the time. If you’re more focused on how you look than on connecting with the people you lead, you will have a real problem. Leadership is vulnerable. It requires that you step into situations and relationships that are murky, complex, uncertain, and risky.

Leadership requires bringing your whole self and emotional energy into each moment.

Leadership requires courage. And vulnerability is courage in action.

Me at the clinic

I had the opportunity to explore courage and vulnerability in the context of leadership in healthcare with Dr. Lucy Houghton, whose research is focused on how girls lose their courage and the risks women leaders take to reclaim it.

Courage shows up in places of pain, transition, challenge, and uncertainty! And while women are not socialized to be courageous, women leaders in healthcare walk into spaces that demand courage and leadership daily.

Lucy has interviewed many women leaders and coached numerous healthcare leaders motivated to restore psychological safety and well-being within their systems. The work to restore our healthcare systems begins with courage. And she’s created a map for those of us struggling to reclaim courage in times of uncertainty. Check out our conversation on Apple Podcasts to start your journey to reclaim courage!

Bio: Dr. Lucy Houghton is a registered nurse, women's courage researcher, and board-certified wellness coach. She holds a Ph.D. Organizational Leadership & Human Performance and Wyld Rootz’s founder. She is an award-winning speaker and the author of the Courage Cultivation Theory, the first book specifically focused on how women summon their courage. And she is on a mission to ensure women have the training, tools, and support they need to claim their courage and create the life of their dreams.

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