Vexing Requests for Vulnerability

Ariam Tesfai, Contributor

To celebrate the Mental Health Awareness Month, Ariam Tesfai (MBA ’20) reflects on the value of prompting vulnerability with tact.

Oprah-style “aha” moments have colored my time at HBS. More recently, I have been working to collect and dissect my first- and second-year revelations. Some insights are clearer than others. One, however, is of crystal quality. It goes something like this: vulnerability is not a virtue. Well, this is at least not without caveat. 

I say so, and per The Divine Comedy, a narrative poem which centers on personifications of vice and virtue, Dante Alighieri says so too. To confirm, yes, I just brazenly tagged Alighieri as my ally.

Fine, I’ll keep him out of this for now.

Before you start to think that I’m going to challenge the merits of psychological safety, let me clarify, I wouldn’t dare. The benefits of being unnervingly open, sharing pain or insecurity of some kind, are evident to me. I simply take issue with the often-applied assumption that vulnerability is accessible and acceptable for an overwhelmingly broad spectrum of individuals and communities.

Various publications and communication channels, classroom discussions included, almost blanketly propel the notion that vulnerability is a virtue, especially within the context of good leadership. It is, however, careless to position the attribute or state in such a way. Vulnerability is nuanced and deeply complex; it should not be promoted as fervently, or simply, as lemonade is in the summertime. Most critically, one should not feel inept for failing to express it on demand.

Being open with oneself arguably precedes being open with others. What happens, though, if one is ill-equipped to lean into herself? To be open with herself? To be vulnerable? A more detailed syllogism might suggest a grim conclusion: she cannot be open with others, and therefore, she cannot be a good leader, or more harshly, good enough. The more this idea is reinforced, the more susceptible current and future generations are to the potentially tragic outcomes of hopelessness.

Some individuals have been raised in homes where self-exploration is encouraged and supported, say, through open dialogue or professional therapy. There are also intrinsically-motivated and able individuals who engage in productive, transformative introspection without aid. These groups are fortunate in many respects, especially given some of the harsh realities others face.

Who else is left you ask? Well, individuals who don’t have the luxury of encouragement, support, or intrinsic motivation for such intrapersonal probes. They could actually be afraid of what they might discover. In these cases, mental health can be at risk, giving rise to wounds that are often invisible to the naked eye, yet highly susceptible to inflammation.

Albeit an oversimplification, these illustrations, focused on extremes, aim to snapshot the spectrum of human experience. There are, of course, countless groups that could be explored.

  In 1999, the Office of the Surgeon General released its first report solely focused on mental health. The report, Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, posited that mental health is vital for one’s overall health, emphasizing that it underpins personal wellbeing, family relationships, and successful contributions to society. It also highlighted the inequities that Americans, especially members of racial and ethnic minority groups, face with respect to mental illness susceptibility and recovery.

The report garnered attention and fostered awareness. In fact, it charged the United States Department of Health and Human Services to publish a 2001 supplemental report, Mental Health: Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. The supplement affirms that minorities face sizable barriers that deter them from addressing mental health-related care, including, but not limited to, the cost of care, societal stigma, clinicians’ lack of awareness of cultural issues, as well as fear and mistrust of treatment.

Most notably, it reinforces the relevance of culture and society on mental health, mental illness, and mental health services. Culture, for instance, proved to influence how people cope with common problems and more extreme types of adversity. From affect suppression to spiritual dependence, coping styles vary significantly. Race and ethnicity can underlie these variances, suggesting that vulnerability elicitations warrant tact.  

Let’s not call for vulnerability without acknowledging that disparities exist concurrently. This qualification is critical. Without it, leaders, business or otherwise, might feel compelled to put on a show simply for pleasant consumption. They could also create environments in which those around them feel the need to do the same. Most disturbingly, this ripple effect is unlikely to have bounds, ultimately promoting phoniness and unduly legitimizing it. 

Acknowledgement may seem insufficient, but it can play a meaningful role in combating mental health-related stigmas. We need more people willing to engage in hard, internal work. Doom is not inevitable—even for those who haven’t yet recognized that there’s work to be done. Acknowledgement can elucidate that there’s the prospect of self-discovery and that the path to vulnerability can be arduous.

Vulnerability, lone-standing, is not virtuous. It is a beautiful end, but it is rarely reached without humility, mindfulness, bravery, and countless other enabling forces—these are the real MVPs.

If heartened by this view, maybe more people will be less inclined to request vulnerability like an on-demand offering. Maybe then more people will care to turn inward and tend to their wellbeing. Maybe then more people will turn outward and offer others insight into their being.

That’s my hope for now. 


Ariam Tesfai (MBA ’20) is originally from Maryland and graduated from Boston College in 2015. Prior to HBS, she worked as a management consultant on M&A transactions. She loves a good laugh—don’t be too flattered if your joke has her in seemingly endless tears, though. That’s a quirk she hasn’t quite figured out yet.