Embrace Your Vulnerability

Let’s face it.  We are all vulnerable.  We are all susceptible to being attacked, whether physically or emotionally, through violence or through words.  I have received my fair share of criticism throughout my tenure over the last twenty years as a school administrator.  Admittedly, some of it was deserved and I would like to think some of it not so deserved.
Regardless, I have learned from my battle wounds that I must own my own moments.
I have a confession to make.  As I begin to write this post I am already feeling a bit nervous, but not exactly sure why?  I never professed to have a monopoly on what it takes to be a successful principal.  I do, however, believe that leaders must maintain exceptionally high standards and expectations for not only their staff and students, but for themselves as well. For me personally, expecting anything less is unacceptable. The greater the expectations we place on ourselves, the more substantial the opportunity to open ourselves to more serious inquiry.  It is in these moments of uncertainty that we must find the courage to embrace our own vulnerability rather than hide from the scrutiny that is sure to come our way.
So therefore, I choose to embrace my vulnerability rather than hide from it.
I presume that we have all faced this type of immense criticism at one time or another, whether the source was a student, parent, colleague, or even supervisor.  If you are like most individuals I am sure it caused a bit of consternation.  For most, words or actions that attack our professional work are hard to swallow. Critiques that question our (good) intentions can sometimes be even more difficult to accept.  And comments that question our integrity can sometimes sting so badly it causes us to pause and reflect on whether or not what we do is all worth it in the end, especially when those words come to us anonymously.
“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” – Brene Brown
Over the years I can count on one hand the number of anonymous letters that were sent to me by someone who in their eyes I had wronged. Each time I opened the letter and read the harsh words that were written about me, it created a lump in my throat. And when I’d finished reading the letter, I would wonder why I put myself through so much misery. After all, I had been mentored to ignore such anonymous letters and to cast them aside as just “crazy talk” by a disgruntled person. I recall one letter that called me every derogatory and racist name in the book there is to describe someone of Mexican descent. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should be furious or whether or I should feel sorry for whoever authored such a letter that the only way they could feel better about themselves was to pen such horrible things about someone else. As I reflect back on those letters I will reveal to you that I never shared them with my family.  I would like to say it was because I didn’t see a need to share such ugly comments with them because I didn’t want to worry them that perhaps someone would want to hurt me. But honestly, I was also somewhat embarrassed and maybe even afraid to admit that the truth was someone out there despised me to the “nth” degree.
And why? I am not sure I will ever know.
A couple of months ago I received a message from a friend of mine who shared a comment with me that was tagged to him on twitter.  Although it had been years since someone had anonymously attacked me as a person, this felt different.  It had not come to me in an envelope in the privacy of my own home or office.  No, this was shared on social media for the entire world to see by an anonymous tweeter named @DoenutJane.  Suddenly, I felt that same lump in my throat that I had experienced in years past. But this time, it lasted only for a split second and then it went away.
And here is why (Over the past couple of months, similar tweets have popped up on #IAedchat, our state chat that I moderate on Sunday evenings).
I made the decision not to let this this anonymous tweet define me or control me or stop me from being the type of leader I want to be. Those who know me well will tell you I am passionate about what I do and that I am unquestionably committed to providing the best experiences for our students and our school community. For many of us in leadership positions we are prone to expecting anything less than someone’s best and that sometimes leads to potential future problems if addressed. Holding others accountable for professional excellence opens us up for greater scrutiny. And sometimes that criticism it deserved and well, sometimes it is not.
The fact is that is not for us to determine whether or not we believe the feedback we receive is fair or not.  As leaders, that is the path we have chosen and we must recognize that we are responsible for modeling what we expect from others and that is admitting that we don’t always get it right and when the criticism comes, let us not be fools by not taking time to reflect and make the necessary changes in order to grow.
I know that if I want to strive to have the greatest impact on others that I possibly can, I must accept that I will undoubtedly open myself up to greater criticism and greater scrutiny in my role as a high school principal. I cannot and will not allow such harsh words to control me or my attitude about the work we do as educators in our schools.  Our work is too important, too great to not allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
I am ready to embrace my vulnerability and own my moments.
Even it if comes in the form of an anonymous tweet.

                                              
“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” – Criss Jami

38 Comments

  • Dan Butler says:

    My friend,
    Another great post and so very true. When you are transparent, expect the best, and hold others accountable, you open yourself up to criticism. Leadership requires a tremendous amount of courage, and you, my friend, are a true model of excellence. I appreciate the mentoring that you have provided to me, and our friendship. Continue to be great, Jimmy.

    Dan

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Dan, thank you my friend. Means so much coming from you and others who I respect so much. Feel fortunate you agreed to “be vulnerable” and join the #IAedchat team. Thanks partner! – jimmy

  • Andrew Pass says:

    Jimmy, thanks for writing this post. I think it is very important to be able to step back when one receives negative criticism and consider its validity. Often times it is true and we need to try and approve as professionals and people. Sometimes we can honestly claim that it is not accurate However, before deciding that criticism is not accurate I always want to think about it deeply. I am sure that many of us are our own toughest critics. Therefore when somebody criticizes us they are not telling us very much new. Since, we are trying to be the best professionals we can be, even when an anonymous letter comes we should consider what it says.

    We should even consider letters that we receive that include racist comments, although only long enough to recognize that the writer most likely has a problem instead of the reader.

    @apasseducation

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Andrew, I like your mindset. You are going to go places with that attitude. Yes, even though the words hurt sometimes, we must take the time to reflect and search for truths in order to make changes and grow. It’s all about striving to be better. – jimmy

  • Karen says:

    This post really struck a cord with me Jimmy. This is exactly why I hesitate to blog…. I am letting fear get in the way of true growth. Thank you for giving me something to really think about and be willing to “put yourself out there” day after day to help others grow! – Karen

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Karen, me too, but after much reflection and encouragement and support from my PLN, I knew I had to put myself out there. I am sure with it will come some challenges, but in the end I do believe it will help me be better for others. -jimmy

  • Joy Kirr says:

    Yes.
    Great post.
    I have thought about that word, “vulnerable,” since the marriage counselor asked my (now ex-) husband and I, “When are you vulnerable with each other?” I had put up my wall – it had grown tall and solid. I would not be hurt again. It took me awhile to realize this, and when I did, I realized that that is NOT how you should live life. Be vulnerable, and learn from what hurts. Learn from the punches, and then move on, perhaps changed. Perhaps stronger, and more sure of yourself. The people who know you, Jimmy, know that your tweets represent YOU. We also know you are a DO-er, not just a wordsmith. Please continue to show your true self, and those who appreciate you will grow even more. Thank you for this post!

  • Dennis Schug says:

    Jimmy, the very thing that has drawn others to you – your transparent pursuit for excellence for your students, staff, and educators (like me) is the very trait that makes you the great “leader without borders” that you are. It’s precisely what has drawn me to do things like participate in #IAedchat, putting our feelings on what’s important to us what drives us, for others to see, judge, share, and in some sad cases, twist into something negative, something different.

    There is always risk in being an effective educational leader, but you have pushed the limits within yourself, for the benefit of others, to be consistently highly effective. That should not only be appreciated, but respected, admired, and emulated. Jimmy, you are a role model for others, and are teaching your students and staff the importance of integrity and transparency, on Twitter and more importantly, in life.

    This Middle School Principal from Long Island joins so many others in placing value in the work you are doing to celebrate our profession! Jimmy, thanks for leading the way!

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Dennis, thank you for your encouraging and thoughtful comments. I know in my heart I have grown as a leader and as a person over the years. I believe that. Like teaching, I wish I could go back to year 1,2, or 3 and change some things. But then I realize if not for those mistakes, I may not have grown in ways I know I have. Our experiences, both good and bad are what have shaped us all into the people we are today. All we can do is keep striving to be better tomorrow than we were today. Thanks again! – jimmy

  • Jimmy Casas says:

    Joy – wow! Your words mean so much Joy. As I shared with you, I hesitated to post this blog for that very reason, but then realized I couldn’t write a post about being vulnerable and then be worried about being vulnerable to others’ responses. I know if I want to grow and learn in order to help others, sometimes I have to be willing to accept and reflect on what comes with it. Thanks again for your comments. They hit home for me. -jimmy

  • Jimmy, As a teacher who is starting to pursue an administration position, thank you for sharing your insight. I have been running an after-school program for 3 years and criticism can be hurtful. I am always trying to make the program the best for students. My recent initiative was to give the students a voice in the program through small group discussion. A person left a negative note in my mailbox. I felt isolated when this occurred. I became frustrated. When I read your post I realize that “to have the greatest impact on others that I possibly can, I must accept that I will undoubtedly open myself up to greater criticism and greater scrutiny”
    Thank you for being an inspiration.

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Robert, good for you. I know that feeling of isolation well. You are right, part of leadership will involve putting yourself out there on an island and feeling alone when the criticism comes. However, do not let this deter you from always doing what you believe is right. Stay the course my friend. There are so many positive things about going into administration. Good luck! – jimmy

  • John Wink says:

    If you’re not holding people accountable, you’re not really a leader. I, too, share these sentiments. Leaders will be attacked, but we mustn’t lose heart. Those attacks reveal the fears of the attacker not the attacked. If that we’re not true, then the person would confidently display their name. Keep fighting the good fight and doing what’s best for kids and the rest will take care of itself.

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      John, thank you for your supportive comments. You make a good point about those who choose to express their displeasure in an anonymous way. In many ways I feel it is a cop out, but as I shared in my post, I still feel compelled to reflect on what is shared and try and learn something from it. I will do my bet my friend. Thanks! – jimmy

  • It’s an interesting world we live in, huh Jimmy?

    Transparency and access doesn’t always bring benefits. Sometimes they come with costs that are unexpected and hurtful. As danah boyd writes, they also come with permanence and replicability — they will stay online forever and can spread through networks faster than ever before. That’s a lesson everyone — students and teachers alike — needs to learn in order to survive in today’s digitally connected world.

    And that’s a lesson that keeps some people from writing and sharing. You can see that in the comment section here, but you can also see that in the fact that most people who live in online spaces AREN’T creators. Lurking isn’t just a result of people being pinched for time. It’s a result of people being worried about putting themselves out there.

    In a weird way, I like the accountability that living in online spaces brings for me. I know full well that people can (and will) point out every weakness that I have as an individual. That means I’m going to write about my weaknesses before they do. That also means I’m going to try to up my professional game in my own classroom and in my own school so that I can write about my successes too.

    Because online spaces make openness a default whether I like it or not, I choose to be as open and honest with myself and with others as I can be — and in a lot of ways, that makes me a better professional and a better person in the end.

    That has the potential to be a good thing, right? At least as long as we can recognize people who are spouting off without reason.

    Thanks for making me think this morning…
    Bill

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Bill, thank you for this response. I agree. I have spoken to many people who will admit they fear the potential negative feedback they will receive if they share themselves on on-line spaces. I don’t judge because I know what they are feeling. However, I still encourage them to consider only because of the potential to find out more about themselves. I watched how much my parents struggled and I admired them for their resiliency which gave me the courage to put myself out there. In some small way, I feel like I am honoring their struggles. Thanks for taking time to comment this morning! – Go be great Bill! – jimmy

  • Peter DeWitt says:

    Jimmy,
    This is an incredibly honest and powerful post. Many of us have been attacked in letters, anonymous Tweets and comments on blogs. It doesn’t feel good, especially when you work so hard to further the conversation. I agree with John. These people, who may not even know you, wake up far angrier in life than we could even imagine. How sad for them that they cannot even sign their own name.
    Thanks for putting into words what so many of us feel as we put ourselves out there.

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Peter, honored that you commented on my blog. Thank you! No doubt it doesn’t feel good. Interesting note, when it happens to me I do take time to reflect and try to see it from another person’s perspective. Most educators I know don’t go into a situation with an intent to hurt someone else. Anonymous feedback feels different because the intent is to hurt. However, when it happens to others I try to remind them that is says more about the anonymous author than it does about them. We just have to rise above. Thanks for your comments Peter! I am humbled. – jimmy

  • Matt Degner says:

    Hey partner,
    Way to use this as a positive. You have been such a great mentor and friend to me. I am so thankful that I get to continue to learn from you. Thanks for being vulnerable yourself and challenging us all to do the same. Not sure how I can thank you for all I have learned from you!

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Matteo, well, you are too kind my friend. I am honored to have worked with you and proud of the leader you are becoming. Learn from my mistakes my friend and remember to never fear being vulnerable. I don’t think we can ever grow into the people we want to become unless we are willing to do so. Keep striving for greatness my friend. – jimmy

  • Ben Gilpin says:

    Terrific Jimmy! You had me the entire way, especially with this – “For many of us in leadership positions we are prone to expecting anything less than someone’s best and that sometimes leads to potential future problems if addressed. Holding others accountable for professional excellence opens us up for greater scrutiny. And sometimes that criticism it deserved and well, sometimes it is not.”

    As we both know this is where life becomes difficult. People feel attacked on a personal level, when the truth is, we have high expectations and we are focused on what is best for kids. It saddens me when people make personal attacks, but what it also does it is shows me the true identity of the individual. When everything is good life is easy, but when things are difficult you learn about a persons true character. You my friend are a man and a leader of high character. Continue to lead with your heart and “Be The Change…”.
    -Ben

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Ben, thank you my friend. Your words mean a lot to me. You are a role model for your staff & students & I appreciate how you often reflect on your role as principal to help better serve your community. That my friend is being vulnerable. – jimmy

  • Jeremy Negus says:

    Absolutely. Thank you for this post! After reading Brene Brown’s “Daring Greatly”, I am convinced it will be one of these books that I continue to go back to for a re-read.
    Jimmy, your words rang true for me. With this being my first year in administration, there have been a few moments where I have had to say “I am sorry” because of a mistake I made or an oversight. Those words require quite a bit of vulnerability, but as time has gone on people have come back to me and let me know they appreciated me admitting I made a mistake. It takes a certain confidence or courage to admit you made a mistake, doesn’t it? It also brings about a certain level of freedom. I am so thankful that on my job description it doesn’t say: “Must have it all together” or “Must never make a mistake”. Vulnerability frees us up to really go after it, and then clean up any messes if we need to.
    Continue to act in this freedom and really go after it, as you always do.

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Jeremy, great job of owning your mistakes. What a powerful way to build trust and credibility. You should take a moment to read Tom Whitford’s last blog post where he describes in detail how he erred in his decision, but then turned it into a learning opportunity for himself & others who respect his leadership. None of us are even close to having all of the answers, so we just have to keep on learning. You are well on your way. Thanks again – jimmy

  • Mr. Braden says:

    Jimmy
    This post hit the nail on the head for me as I read it on Sunday morning. Thank you for putting it out there what all admins face on a weekly basis. As a young administrator, and a wife who works in our district as well, it can be tough times during tough budget years and lots of people questioning our actions but your post reminded me that vulnerability is a part of the passion we chose and the gifts we share with others and our community. I know we are called to this work and we are fortunate to be able to do it as a career. Thank you for reminding me to embrace the grind and to kill them with kindness. Have a good week sir, and thank you for your mentorship from afar.
    Jeremy Braden

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Mr. B, yes, budget cuts are often stressful times. Anyone who has ever been through them as a leader knows the challenges that come with it. It in these moments that we must be transparent and open in our discussions, taking time to listen and empathize with our co-workers. However, we still must make the difficult decisions that others sometimes don’t want to make. All we can do is treat others with dignity and respect during these challenging times. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I sincerely appreciate it. Make a great week! – jimmy

  • Jimmy,

    What an honest, powerful post. It is clear to me from interacting with you online that you are passionate about what you do. After reading this and participating in tonight’s iaedchat, I can honestly say I’m motivated to become more vulnerable…sounds strange when I say it that way, but it’s the honest truth.

    I’m in my first year in administration. I’ve implemented my share of change and have had to hold people accountable, and I’ve received criticism at times. Going forward,
    I’m thankful to have your words in this post to reflect back on in times of need. I loom forward to a time we can meet in person and have the chance to chat!

  • Hi Jimmy

    Love the honesty here. For me vulnerability is rooted in trust (which is the currency of leadership). As someone who has always seen and espoused the importance of vulnerability, lately I’ve been focussing on my own response to others sharing their own vulnerabilities with me. As an administrator I always feel I am in a unique and trusted position to encounter others vulnerabilities with respect and sensitivity. Being open, reflective and vulnerable helps me meet people where they are at (at least I try). Congrats on the honesty and transparency

  • Bill Powers says:

    Hello Jimmy,
    Bravo on the post!
    It is never easy, whether anonymous or face-to-face, to receive this type of feedback.
    I admire your transparency, leadership, and passion.
    You lead and inspire many of us, including me, from afar.
    Thank you!
    Bill

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Bill, thank you. So good to hear from you. Think of you often. Definitely planning a return trip to KC this summer for some serious BBQ! Your feedback means a great deal to me so thank you for taking the time to not only read my post but to comment. By the way, we will need to make sure we invite Dillon so we can get a few “samples” 🙂 Many blessings my friend. – jimmy

  • Shane Gordon says:

    Great post. This cuts to the heart of human nature and expresses the struggles that every administrator goes through.

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Shane, thank you. Yes, criticism is one part of our job as leaders that we will never be able to avoid. If we shift our mindset, we can use it to help us grow in our role as leaders. Thanks for the comment. -jimmy

  • Jimmy, I consider you a friend and a visionary leader. Visionary leaders are hard to come by in the field of education. I have always believed that as teachers and leaders we are to be role models for our students and kids. Our digital footprint is transparent which means that we do open ourselves to being vulnerable. It also opens the door for opportunities to learn with the best and to develop relationships on a global scale. Unfortunately, along with vulnerability we open ourselves to criticism. You and I both know how to give and take constuctive criticism and to learn and grow from it. Many people in the world learn from and with you. The number of people you influence positively is enormous. We must continue to embrace the global nature of our profession and our own vulnerability so that we model how best to handle life in a digital world.

    The tweet that you share in your post is someone who doesn’t know the real you. I have always told my students as well as my own children that before you write anything that could even potentially be seen publicly, they need to be able to sign their name to it, therefore taking ownership of their words, thoughts, and ideas. It is a risk every time we click submit, publish, or tweet, but taking that risk opens our world and helps broaden our perspective almost every time.

    There are still people in education who have no digital presence at all! Our friend and colleague George Corous from Canada would tell us to be more careful around those with no digital presence than those who do have a digital presence. Your opinion and leadership means more to me than some loose cannon who obviosly will not engage you in dialogue. Keep up the good fight, by continuing to care for your students, staff, and community.

    Thank you for sharing your visionary leadership with the world and modeling not only passion, purpose, and pride but also compassion and empathy. The world is a better place because of you, my friend.

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Tim, I appreciate it. The feeling is mutual my friend. I sincerely appreciate the thought you put into your comments above. Although we have known each other only a short while, I consider you a dear friend and someone I respect and appreciate. You are a role model for not only all educators, but more importantly, your own children. You have an amazing story, so I hope you keep sharing it with the world. Take care -jimmy

  • JC,
    The authenticity of being a transparent leader isn’t something that is regularly discussed. If you’re lost in the echo chamber you might think that it doesn’t happen to anyone except you. Thank you for reminding us that it is something we all experience. My principal uses the phrase all the time, “what was the intent behind it?” which I have really taken to heart. If the intent was to be ugly and hurtful, then I am out. If its coming from a humble intent to make me better, than I can handle it.

    • Jimmy Casas says:

      Amber, what a great perspective you have. Hence, why you are respected by so many other educators and why you continue to grow in your profession as a school leader. You make others around you better and therefore, more willing to share not only their successes, but their struggles as well. Thanks for your continued support. Look forward to seeing you in June. – jimmy

  • Dear Jimmy,
    Thank you for once again representing the challenges courageous leaders face! I would love to please everyone all the time but I can’t and I won’t and as a leader I know that I should not. I too have received anonymous hate mail and it sickens me too. I too have been personally attacked and questioned. Knowing I am in the company of a courageous leader and free like you helps mitigate the sting from those too weak to speak and those so weak they must hide behind the secrecy of anonymity.

    Keep your expectations high for all.

    Continue to lead with passion.

    And know that like you many of us are also vulnerable!

    My best,

    Mike

  • Interesting post about vulnerability in leadership and ownership of moments. It is definitely not easy to be at the top. I too am grateful for Brene Brown’s books and videos. She has spoken about a topic that is sometimes stigmatized. I wrote a blogpost post on April 9 about vulnerability in learning, more so in higher ed and the questions I have. http://justywk.blogspot.com/2014/04/what-does-vulnerability-in-learning.html Any feedback is appreciated.

    The challenge is to support anyone who is in that place of ambiguity. A site of negotiation. How would we help someone to embrace vulnerability in practice in complex social systems? Vulnerability is a delicate emotion.