Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership

Get Real to Succeed – vulnerability, love, and clarity


Growth chartI am accustom to encountering friendly (sometimes intense) competitive posturing when entering a new situation. A little verbal sparing sets the tone for who is stronger in position and perspective. Once the first probe of potential strengths and weakness passes the conversation gets down to business.  It is like a hazing designed to determine the level of competence and connection.

So, imagine my surprise when entering a tense conversation when the CEO started with, “Your perspective (referring to an email) hurt me.  I don’t think it captured my intent or characterized my actions well.”

I sat back in my chair, grasped for a new sense of orientation to the meeting and responded with, “Fair enough, help me understand.  I thought you made clear in our last conversation that you were quite agitated with the course we decided to take. Was I wrong?”

Feelings change the “rules of engagement” in interactions. They can introduce vulnerability instead of competitiveness in communication in a way that accelerates clarity.  I don’t often see this kind of vulnerability in organizations.  Communication is more often a muddle of dishonesty and irritation punctuated with rare moments of personal honesty that infrequently slips out from the edges.  This “usual pattern” is horribly inefficient.

This CEO was in the middle of a deliberate culture change.  He had inherited a corporate culture permeated with a cover your backside attitude, pettiness, excuse making, blame shifting poorly performing company.  He wanted to move it toward a responsible, accountable, vision casting quest for excellence. There are still burps of regression along the way but wow, a little honesty about feelings seems to have gone a long way in getting at clear communication. Three factors help start then negotiate a culture shift.


Brené Brown has made an impact on the way leaders think about vulnerability by defining vulnerability accepting the uncertainty and risk associated with emotional exposure. What is the benefit to this approach? The opportunity for love to grow.  “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”
― Brené BrownThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are  What does love have to do with business or leadership?  It has everything to do with engaging work with who one really is rather than what people think they should be.

I remember my first VP in business after my transition from pastoral ministry to the corporate world.  One day he asked me what I thought about being in the “real world.”  I turned and laughed at him.

“Real? You think this is real? All I see are people afraid to be themselves, filled with competitive envy who are confident of only one thing – the moment they let down their guard someone will view them as less successful.  You want real?  Come to my pastoral office where people pour out their fears, describe their losses, unveil their shame and guilt and ask for help in becoming the person they want to be…that is real.  This is mostly a farce where some people enjoy what they do yet worry that they may be truly known and others hate what they do and will never allow themselves to be truly known.”  The VP looked stunned for a moment then wandered off muttering something about my being really different.

Vulnerability makes the shift from hiding to walking into the open with all the skills, insights, interests and passion that sit at the core of people’s true engagement.  Without the willingness to embrace the chance of failure no real success will ever occur.  I have a quote hanging on my office wall from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States that summarizes this idea.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”


James Autry, retired president of the magazine group at Meredith Corporation, reflected on one of the most transformative encounters he experienced as a leader. He was listening to Bob Barnett, then CEO of the Meredith Corporation in 1968.  According to Autry, Barnett reflected on the importance of self renewal as a leader pointing out that the most important thing in this process is love.

Love in business?  Why not? Love is not being a jolly, well-liked sap who cannot make difficult decisions or who has lost the respect of others and become an impotent in leader. Rather it is a commitment to act out beyond ego to recognize when denial or hubris has misdirected critical thinking. Love is the humility to learn from others regardless of their status and a commitment to grow personally. Love sets a tone in which others can risk excelling – an act that requires they also risk failing.

So did love work for Autry?  Under his tenure the magazine group went from $160 million in revenue to $500 million.  In Autry’s words “I tried to integrate love in the corporate setting. And it just kept working; I just kept getting results.”

My CEO friend is on the verge of becoming deliberate about love. He clearly has compassion for his employees and cares about their well-being.  However, he has not yet defined love in a way that allows him to also exercise difficult leader decisions. As a result he sometimes lacks clarity in the muddle of his own duplicity in action. He affirms when he needs to correct and sometimes corrects when he needs to affirm.  He has retained less than capable people with the hope they will improve and not designed a development plan to move them toward improvement or replacement.


In my conversation with this newly minted CEO I asked him to tell me what his vision was for the company.  He outlined a profit target.

“Ok,” I said, “hitting a profit is great and necessary to continue in business but what inspires you to work to that end? What will you use to rally the people in your charge to truly invest themselves in the work of the company?”

“Hitting the profit goal,” he responded with even greater intensity. He appears to see profit as the means to an end. It is of course in one sense, he will not keep his position or meet his other goals without making a profit.  However, he has fallen into the great distortion of the American corporation.  The real work of any business is not making profits; making profits is the result of the real work.

In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink noted that purpose was one of the core aspects of motivation.  When people own and work toward a greater purpose their internal drive reduces any need to force a motivation onto them. Most managers learn that extrinsic motivators are not consistently reliable and often work to undermine rather than amplify motivation.

The greatest businesses I have had opportunity to engage all have and live in a sense of purpose and they can describe their purpose clearly and succinctly. Sure they are aware of their metrics and check their profit.  However, their profitability (and all of them are profitable) does not arise out of their monitoring of profit but out of their passion for their work.

When I pressed this new CEO for a purpose his communication became a muddled disarray of incomplete thoughts.  It seems to me that once the CEO becomes clear about love he will also become much more clear about purpose. Clarity in purpose is essential for any company that seeks to thrive and walk toward greatness.  Those companies that only walk toward profit are not great, they are wreaks of burned out employees and bitter executives living to avoid the next round of cuts.


I see vulnerability, love and clarity as revolutionary in force and outcome. In my own leadership I have seen the power these unleash the gifts and abilities of others and myself. These characteristics always probe my weaknesses and push on my strengths. These characteristics consistently help turn negative poor performing units and companies into thriving and financially successful operations in my experience. However, they clearly need a commitment to personal change and growth. How does vulnerability, love and clarity factor into your leadership?  If they don’t, why? How can you introduce them? Do you need help – who will you talk with? I am always game for a conversation – I am still learning.  Let’s talk.

Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Lift: Five Practices Great Managers Do Consistently (2020) and Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world (2015). He is also an adjunct lecturer at International Theological Seminary, LIFE Pacific University, Bethesda University California, and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

14 thoughts on “Get Real to Succeed – vulnerability, love, and clarity

  1. I`ve always wondered why businesses weren`t more loving and
    caring. They should be, in the end, they`re made up of people
    working for and with people. Thank you for writing so clearly,
    honestly and lovingly on the subject. You`ve given me a LOT to
    think about.

  2. Great article Ray. I really like how you took Brené’s work on vulnerability and made it practical in the workplace. I am beginning to see some of this now, but even in ministry vulnerability, love and clarity are not all that common on teams.

  3. If Trans National Financial Corporation business leaders
    were to embrace the language and actions of love, and as a result,
    profits abound, I suspect the question of intent, would surface.
    What is more, biblical prophesy of revelations would be trotted out
    all the more.Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t.

    • Greg, I agree companies would be more profitable and people will always question intent sometimes in a quest to learn and sometimes out of envy. There is another aspect to this that you may have missed. If love is embraced as I described then there will also be an increase in corporate social responsibility. Companies that look at more than the bottom line help address deep social problems, take responsibility for the unexpected consequences of their policies and provide a venue in which people can thrive in their gifts and creativity. I get what you said about people marching out biblical prophesy in order to diminish what they don’t understand – I worked as a pastor the first half of my career and had people misuse prophesy as a way to question my leadership. This and other forms of resistance to loving others (greed, arrogance etc) always exist in some form. Change takes courageous leadership that does not collapse in the face of opposition but persists. Thanks for commenting please stay in the conversation, you sound like a person with a vision of something more than “business as usual.”

      • Here in New Zealand the banks and the oil companies are saturating the airwaves with evidence of their loving ways. Concentrating on such concepts as good and bad (read evil). They have left enough time for the GFC and the Gulf Oil Spill to recede from public memory, to be replaced by a new manufactured perception. The worst thing about it is it will work. A quick search for HSBCs ex-chairman steve greens you tube interviews will reveal something akin to Jesus with respect to morality and love. He resided over a bank laundering thirty billion of drug cartel money, facilitating the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Way more than Bin Larden.
        I was impressed by John Mackey, CEO of Wholefoods, video on love within business. http://www.managementexchange.com/video/john-mackey-whats-love-got-do-it-0
        Only to find he has been embroiled in a controversy involving using a false identity to deride his opposition. Deceit and the language of love from the same mouth. Be careful of who you hero worship, you are bound to be let down.
        I myself, am working on systems to infuse love within the overall business system, and indeed, subsequently to the broader community, despite leadership, rather than through leadership. Somewhat heretical to you no doubt, the answer is not better leaders, but better systems.

        • Great points all…in fact your quest to create better systems is exactly what leadership aims to accomplish. Early leadership studies in the 1950s here in the US concluded that effective leaders consistently acted in two specific ways: they created structures and they exercised care for their employees. It sounds to me that you are acting like a leader – that is why I enjoy your comments.

          • If I become a leader I’ll build a system to stop me in my tracks. 😉

            • You reminded me of a book by Jean Lipman-Blumen, “The Lure of Toxic Leaders” in part her thesis is that toxic leaders are allowed to exist by broken systems. If the people within the system reject toxicity and alter the culture of the org then toxic leaders cannot remain. In the mean time…

              • Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
                By definition, leaders have followers. Followers provide leverage for leaders. Leverage is power. The system needs to reduce that leverage.

  4. On a personal level, if I am clearly focused on loving
    others rather than protecting and/or promoting myself, then I can
    be more vulnerable. Whenever (which happens often each day) I lose
    that perspective, I begin to hide and pretend… and I miss
    opportunities to learn from and/or bless others. The same happens
    on a corporate level. Besides (self) awareness of the challenge,
    what do you suggest for keeping the clarity, love, vulnerable
    perspective healthy and active?

    • Terry, my answer is to remain open to intimacy – by that I mean psychological/emotional/spiritual intimacy. For me it starts each day in my quite time when I am aware of choosing to be honest with God about what I face or to play the part of a dishonest and disconnected pretender. It is not always easy to love, it is a choice and in my frustration I either hide, withdraw or engage in wrathful arrogance (telling God I work around half wits and ignoramuses). I have to choose intimacy with God because God’s utter truthfulness shows me up to be the whiny bratty pin head that I can sometimes be while also wooing me to draw close and find healing and comfort at those points that daily interaction with others has left me bruised, disappointed or feeling useless. I have to choose intimacy with others because my pain or arrogance only amplifies the dissonance that occurs in any relationship. I choose vulnerability so I can see and experience break throughs – and sometimes though not always I do. As you can see for me it is a process that repeats, it is not an arrival in which I can claim some sort of accomplishment. I keep choosing the right way (a process of repentance) and I find that my capacity to love and my resilience in love does expand. Because it is a process I also exercise hope…I long for and bring to the present that living hope resident in Christ’s resurrection that one day he will wipe away every tear, insecurity, disappointment and pain from me…and those I know. What a great day that will be, even so come quickly Lord Jesus and help me be a living evidence of HOPE’s transforming power in the present.

  5. Thank you for your article, it’s very useful, will definitely try to experiment what you have indicated… there’s only one thing I want to talk about in more detail, I wrote an email to your address about it.

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