Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” is what clients value most.  Grace writes a regular column for WRAL TechWire, including the latest miniseries, Back in the Classroom at Harvard Business School, of which the below column is a part. 


RALEIGH – At my 30th reunion, I had the opportunity to be a student in Professor Scott Snook’s last Harvard Business School lecture at Klarman Hall. 

When I read his bio and his research focus, “Authentic Leader Development: The Counterintuitive Role of Vulnerability,” I immediately knew I had to make my way into his class. 

Ueng: Back in the classroom at Harvard Business School

The shy West Point cadet and Baker Scholar – my new favorite professor

Snook graduated from West Point with honors and earned the Royal Society of Arts Award for being the most outstanding cadet in his class. He graduated from HBS with High Distinction as a Baker Scholar. Leading soldiers in combat, his many military decorations include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

Wow, impressive.

After watching him speak on stage with great dynamism and energy, engaging each of us in the audience, he surprised us by sharing that he is an off the scale introvert and painfully shy, so the moment he finishes teaching, every bone in his body screams “let’s go and hide.”  He is a completely different person once he steps off the stage.  I thought to myself, “This is my new favorite professor!”

Grace Ueng: Vulnerability, trust, and empathy with Tesla employee #12

Sharing is Caring

It was extremely heartwarming to see him completely open up and share not only his son’s mental health struggles after being wounded in combat, but the professor’s own mental health struggles. Because of the machoness of the military culture and associated stigma, he had never shared with anyone, including even his own children, the bouts of depression that he had endured.  But when his son was seriously wounded and honorably discharged, Snook watched him fall into post traumatic depression. It was then that he decided to share with his son his own struggles with postoperative depression after his surgeries to recover from his war wounds.  Snook’s sharing made all the difference in his son’s  recovery.    

Ueng: Vulnerability is an attractive leadership trait

Vulnerability creates reciprocity

Snook learned through his personal experience along with an abundance of research, that there is upside to sharing a little bit more than you would normally.  Being vulnerable draws others to you. And encourages reciprocity. When I opened up about my mental health challenges last year, many others also shared with me who would not have otherwise. 

Similarly, Snook shares intentionally to help those he teaches.  He, in turn, has his HBS students share weekly reflections as part of his leadership course. 60-70% of his students share that they have sought professional help during the course. In the safe space Snook creates, his students quickly get over the social stigma and they are soon even comparing who has the best therapist.

At his last lecture, he gave us a sharing exercise that we had to do with the person sitting next to us, most likely, someone we had never met. It turns out that it is easiest to share with those we don’t know.  When I conduct 360s for coaching clients or discovery interviews for win/loss analysis for consulting clients, it is surprisingly not difficult for me to garner articulate and candid feedback from the person on the other end, who I have never met and may never see again.

Grace Ueng: Asking life’s important questions

Appreciating the Good, because of experiencing the Bad

It is the most difficult to share with the people closest to us, close colleagues and especially those we know very well and love.

That is one reason why the Touchy Feely course at Stanford Graduate School of Business is challenging, as by second year when they enroll in this elective, the students know each other well.  We are wired to go through life grabbing the “good stuff” while risking as little as possible of the “bad stuff.”

But because the course yields great benefit, Stanford students embrace its lessons. 

Brené Brown, researcher storyteller known globally for her work on vulnerability, has conducted research that reveals that you can’t feel the good emotions in life – joy, belonging, love, purpose without risking the bad – pain, sorrow, grief, loss, failure. 

Years ago, I had lunch with an attorney friend who had divorced and then remarried. He shared words that have stuck with me, “If I had not experienced the bad, I would not appreciate the good.”

Grace Ueng: The power of visualization, and how to channel your fear

Vulnerability and Leadership

Vulnerability is an essential ingredient to strong leadership. Putting oneself out there with no guarantees. The natural tendency of leaders is to think, “I’ve got this. I have all the answers.”  This largely male approach to leading in past decades is to be “the hero.”   Fast forward to today and into the future, authentic leaders will say, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.  I need all the crazy and quirky  ideas that you beautiful people can come up with. Let’s figure this out together.”  When you really need your team to dig in, sharing your concerns and fears vulnerably, will draw your team toward you and the goal. People are drawn to help those who expose their weakness.

Key to management success: Make sure you are asking right questions

“I love you.”  “Oh yes – I think you’re kinda cool.”

Even “good” things can be scary to share. Telling someone “I love you” for the first time is the greatest moment of vulnerability when you aren’t sure of the response. These three words can create unease for both parties, especially if the feeling is not mutual.  Who wants to hear in response, “Oh yes, you are kind of cool.”  

After we shared with the person sitting next to us, Snook had us give the person feedback including a couple points that might be more difficult to say and hear. Giving compliments is much easier than giving constructive feedback.  Which is why so many people postpone addressing areas of improvement for individuals who work with them.  Learning how to approach anxiety in sharing difficult information and working on active listening skills, will help you give and receive feedback more often and successfully. 

From technology marketing leader to starting a new venture: Lessons from an entrepreneurial journey

We all want to be seen and heard. Snook’s last lecture lives on.

Listening is the best gift you can give someone.  Every human being wants to be seen and heard. I am super excited to incorporate the exercises and wisdom  I learned at reunion in Vulnerability Workshops for our clients. Snook’s last lecture lives on in me.


Thumbs up: Empowerment and the three ingredients to be happy at work