The Day My Bladder Fell Out and Other Leadership Lessons in Vulnerability
blog post | news + business

How Leaders Show Strength Through Vulnerability: The Day My Bladder Fell Out

Do you know why it’s important to show strength through vulnerability as a leader? Have you considered what a vulnerable leader means to you, to your team and to your company? What value would a drama-free workplace bring to your company?

Let’s go even deeper. How honest are your employees about their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellness? Would they come to you if they were struggling? Or are you unintentionally harboring a culture of shame. Do you know how to be vulnerable and how to create a safe space for discomfort?  Have you ever run an emotional stress test through your team?

I have answered all of these questions, repeatedly in over a decade in leadership. And I’ve repeatedly received feedback from prior employees that my vulnerability based leadership changed their lives. How? That’s what this story is about. You see, I could start by telling you that I lead with my emotions on my sleeve or that my heart is in plain view. But I understand that those words may not mean much to you. It’s easy to merely tell others that they should be vulnerable. It’s an entirely different story to actually be it, every day. That takes intention, practice, and an unequivocal willingness to fail.

Leadership text message kudos 5 Years Later
I’ve repeatedly received feedback from prior employees that my vulnerability based leadership changed their lives.

Do you have what it takes to lead your team through 2020 and beyond? Absolutely. Do you know what to do? Probably not. Allow me to provide you the lessons I have learned from over a decade in vulnerable leadership, with the hope that my experiences will inspire you to step even more into your greatness.

The importance of vulnerability in leadership

The rise of the conversation about vulnerability in the workplace can be credited to Brene Brown’s TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability.” Some might see this topic as an irrelevant subject. But that’s definitely not the case—the video has garnered over 9.5 million views since its release in 2011. Why are so many people interested in being more vulnerable in relationships?

I first met Brene at Hubspot’s Inbound conference in 2015. In her keynote and corresponding TED Talk, she revealed her research that uncovers how our relationship with shame, which she defines as the fear of disconnection, controls us in conscious and unconscious ways. She poses this thoughtful question for self-reflection: “Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”

She goes on to share that most of us view vulnerability in others as courage and vulnerability in ourselves as weakness. However, this is a huge leadership miss. One of the key traits of a successful leader is the ability to lead during uncertain times. The truth is that leaders can’t opt out of uncertainty and risk—in fact, Brene recommends that we harness it. Otherwise, we risk losing the gifts of innovation and creativity that can only be birthed from vulnerability.

Shame and fear prevent many people from expressing themselves fully, online and offline. This restriction is compounded tenfold by the pressure to fit the mold of [enter your work title here] and whatever that role means to you, your company, and your professional reputation. Our fear of committing “career suicide” online—and the reverberating impact it would have on our entire lives—has kept us locked into a nice little cage called “professionalism.”But at what cost? And does it make sense to change our strategy?

The answer is a resounding yes. But where do we start?

The move away from anonymity online

I learned my first lesson in the importance of vulnerability in leadership when I ran a community of over 1,000,000 people who had joined a debt management program. Members shared their stories of overcoming shame, guilt, and their internal judgement for how they got into debt. So many had heartbreaking stories of how a major medical event or job loss had set them back so far that they simply couldn’t recover without help. And others shared stories of how they were never taught financial literacy, so they didn’t understand the world of credit and the consequences of late payments.

They all harbored some level of shame and felt that the community was the only safe space where they could talk about it. My job was to offer everyone grace and compassion, regardless of the reason they got into debt, and to build a team of moderators who could do the same.

I witnessed a tremendous shift during that time: A community that had started with 100% anonymous profiles gradually opened up and became a place where people could be honest with themselves and others. People began using their real names and even adding photos. And eventually, some of them even went on to tell their stories publicly and to share their journey of overcoming debt.

It was an incredible life lesson in learning how to not only reserve your judgement but also avoid judging others in the first place. I learned how to create a safe space for tough conversations, and I watched as the community members rallied around each other in remarkable ways. I also learned how to spot judgement and resolve it quickly.

Today, sincere transparency is becoming the new norm. We’re seeing real conversations about how real people are handling their own vulnerabilities take over YouTube and Facebook Watch with Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk, Tom Bilyeu’s Impact Theory, and Lewis Howes’ School of Greatness leading the way. We aren’t talking about the likes of Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, nor are we talking about what we experienced with The Real World and Big Brother. This is a drastic shift in the entertainment industry and represents a move into solutions-based motivational entertainment.

It’s also coming from highly evolved celebrities and business leaders who are making it increasingly easier for others to step into their vulnerability and face their personal stories of shame with grace and humility.

So what does this mean for you? Brands will have to learn how to be vulnerable while maintaining sincerity right alongside their customers. And we’re doing it during some of the most evolutionary times in history.

Let’s get personal—traversing a personal shame story

I’m going to share a story that is incredibly personal. And I warn you that there are pieces of this story that may make you uncomfortable. There are pieces of this story that may kick up your judgement filter. And that’s okay—it’s meant to do just that.

I offer you the same opportunity that I had to suspend judgement as you stick with me. Every sentence has a purpose, and I assure you that you will learn something that will impact your personal and professional life. If you feel discomfort, please breathe and look within. Ask yourself, “What is it that’s upsetting me? Why does it bother me? And do I want to be bothered by it? Or do I want to come into balance and be able to handle whatever life throws at me?” The choice is yours.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and someone who has experienced great loss in her life, speaks about the power of resilience. She says, “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process, you will figure out who you really are — and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”

Ultimately, I hope that my story will empower you to be more confident in your vulnerability and help you understand that it’s a true modern-day leadership superpower.

Here goes…

The story starts on my basement couch. The day prior, a doctor had diagnosed me with a bladder prolapse, which I later found out was actually a complete uterine prolapse. This condition is a complication of childbirth—after I’d had four children, my female reproductive system had collapsed. I had been sent home with no instructions other than to follow up with a specialist next week.

After working the entire day, I came home and noticed I had no energy. I’m a personal development junkie, so I decided to rest and started listening to the Aubrey Marcus Podcast, where he interviewed Alex Banayan, the phenom who hacked The Price is Right in 24 hours to get on and win—and used his winnings to fund his book The Third Door about successful people.

Alex was talking about what he found in his research of extreme success stories. He said that there’s this moment where your entire body hears a whisper. It’s a whisper no one else can hear. And yet, it’s a whisper that is so loud that you can’t ignore it. He said the people in his book listened to that whisper just like he did when he chose to study how to hack The Price is Right instead of studying for his college finals.

As the words left his lips, everything suddenly shifted, and my internal alarm bells started going off. I noticed that I had intense pain in my abdomen. Concerned, I went to the bathroom and checked the state of my lady parts. I felt my bladder. Coming out of my body.

You read that right—I could feel my bladder coming out of my body.

And while it had not completely exited, it was clear that it was trying to make a run for the hills. The vision of me holding my bladder in my hand filled my view, and I started to feel faint. I mustered up all the composure I had within me and walked to the living room and told my beloved I needed to go to the hospital. As my partner gathered our six-month-old son and all of the things he would need at the hospital, I focused on controlling my thoughts and finding that place of internal stillness and peace that often comforts me during my meditations. I couldn’t even sense the pain anymore and felt a haze come over me. I slowly walked to the staircase and told our roommate that we were going to the hospital.

And as she came out of her room, I felt another shift.

Finding the third door to fight or flight

The next thing I knew, I was lying on my foyer floor face down. The tile was cold, and I appreciated it. I could feel my consciousness slipping, and panic began to set in. My roommate noted that I’d lost all of my color. I have an extensive medical background and knew that this meant I could be going into shock. I also knew that, in my situation, the shock could either take my life or cause major damage to my internal organs, especially my bladder.

So I slowly took a breath in and slowly let the breath out. I knew this was my only job, to keep breathing. I placed all of my focus there. As the paramedics came through the door and asked me for my medical history, I spoke in an eerily calm tone. I gave only the information they needed. I had no “extra” to offer. My voice took on a tone of precision and control. It didn’t even sound like me when I explained that I had gone to the bathroom and could feel my bladder coming out of my body—I chuckled as I noted that it was a strange and uncomfortable thing to have to tell strangers.

There were two choices: The paramedics could take me to the county hospital, which was unlikely to have the doctors I needed, or they could take me downtown where all of my doctor’s worked. I requested the latter; they chose the former.

Realizing that it was unlikely I would get the treatment I needed, I had to stay centered and focused. But on what?

Not long ago, I had discovered the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza, a chiropractor who broke his back and became paralyzed. His research into epigenetics and visualization allowed him to completely rebuild his spine and walk shortly after being told he would never walk again. Since then, he has taught thousands of others how to do the same and has extensive research on the power of visualization. I had read his book Becoming Supernatural. The thought crossed my mind: “I guess this is where my belief system either proves itself or doesn’t. But I have to try.” And as I was fighting to stay conscious, I began trying.

Daring to be vulnerable (a.k.a. discovering a new superpower)

I imagined each muscle contracting to move my bladder back into my body one muscle fiber at a time. I tried to visualize it moving back into its correct place, over and over again, in my head. At this point, I was sitting in an empty hospital room without a call button or a nurse. I continued to visualize and breathe for a span of 10 minutes that felt like an eternity.

Eventually, the doctor came into the room. He explained that they do not have a urologist on staff or on call. He decided to call the urologist he trusted to see how to proceed. Then, he came back and did a physical assessment. He said that he could feel the prolapse and that the good news was that it wasn’t that bad. My bladder was almost in its normal position. I suspended my disbelief as I realized that the visualization had worked.

He explained that there was nothing they could do at their hospital. They weren’t set up for surgery, and the urologist said I needed to come in to her office on Monday. “Until then,” he said, “use gravity to your advantage. Lie down and hold your bladder in through the weekend. And most importantly, don’t pick up anything heavy, especially your baby.” If you remember, it was a Friday. My mind tried to process his instructions… How exactly does one hold in one’s bladder, anyway? I had no idea, but I know that I was able to successfully hold it in at least once while I was going to the hospital.

Fast-forward to Tuesday when I got in to see the urologist a full three days later. As I walked in, I noticed most people in the room were in their 70s. Interesting. I checked in and noticed a flicker of surprise in the receptionist’s eyes. I wasn’t sure why, but it was the first time in this experience when I felt a ping of shame.

Why am I the youngest person here? Is this not a common thing? I continued to question my worth as every staff member looked at me with pity in their eyes. I still didn’t know why.

The urologist explained that I needed to make an appointment with a surgeon. Fortunately, I had already scheduled one. On Wednesday morning, sensing that I would finally get some answers, I headed to the hospital where the doctor practices.

Testing my resolve and finding my dignity

What do I do when I’m stressed? I get dressed for the occasion. So I put on my best for the appointment.

Dressed to Impress for my appointment
Yes, I’m wearing my best clothes, and I’m walking through a door that basically says I have a problem with peeing my pants.

I’ve learned that feeling good about myself makes all the difference when the universe tests my resilience. When I feel good, I’m able to respond with grace in the most unusual circumstances, and this turned out to be no different. As I walked up to the office, I saw a sign that read “Women’s Center for Continence & Pelvic Health” and shook my head slightly and laughed. Yes, I’m wearing my best clothes, and I’m walking through a door that basically says I have a problem with peeing my pants. Nice. Thank you, Universe.

The doctor does his checks and confirms that I will need a hysterectomy. As he tells me the details of how a robot will perform the surgery and that I will be left with the equivalent of bionic lady parts, I see his name tag. Dr. Harry Johnson. I can’t make this stuff up. Dr. Harry Johnson removed my womb and left me with bionic lady parts. Okay, Universe. Thanks for the constant reminder that it’s okay to take ourselves a little less seriously.

Dr. Harry Johnson is my surgeon
Dr. Harry Johnson removed my womb and left me with bionic lady parts. Okay, Universe.

After that day, I had to tell my all-male management team that I would need to be out for surgery, a mere two weeks after I had started my new job. There were many times when I felt the potential for shame kick in. And at every turn, I chose to be even more honest, even more open, and even more vulnerable—appropriately, of course.

And you know what? I gained strength through vulnerability and freedom from shame, which made me feel incredible. With each step that I took into more vulnerability by being honest about what was happening, people met me with kindness, compassion, and grace.

Liquid Diets aren't so bad for surgery prep
Maybe a liquid diet isn’t so bad.

Now, the truth is that this wasn’t anything new to me. I’ve always been open and honest. And I’ve extended that into my online presence extensively. Over the past four years, I’ve shared my most intimate, vulnerable stories openly via Facebook Live in what I call Mirror Conversations. During these sessions, I look at myself in the mirror while I’m doing my makeup in the morning and share my experiences with losing all of my wealth and possessions, almost being homeless, being diagnosed with PTSD, and experiencing suicidal depression.

With every session, I challenged myself to be truly open and honest, yet to do it with the right intentions and appropriate personal privacy boundaries. This wasn’t about garnering attention or fame. It wasn’t about oversharing. Rather, it was about releasing my personal shame into the universe.

I laughed, I cried, and I held space for all of my viewers to do the same. Ultimately, I’ve always known that the people who love me for who I am are my people. I am learning to find the resolve to hold just as much love for those who judge me. I’ve been there. I know we’re all doing our best, and I honor everyone’s attempts. I’ve had people tell me I went off the deep end and a litany of other words they use to describe someone who shares openly in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

Ready for Surgery with my Beloved
Before surgery with my beloved.

And that’s the key—at least I know that someone else’s discomfort does not have to become mine.

How my story applies to your business

Thanks for bearing with me. But I’m sure you’re wondering what exactly this story has to do with your business, and especially marketing.

Brene Brown says that “leaders can’t opt out of uncertainty and risk. But they can harness it.” She demonstrates that innovation requires discomfort and recommends that we create cultures where it’s okay to be vulnerable and uncomfortable. But who would sign up for that? Would you? Would your team?

Surgical incisions post surgery
Ouch! Surgery hurts. My post-surgery incisions.

My guess is that our natural instinct is still to choose comfort over courage.

As soon as we start getting close to true vulnerability in situations where there is uncertainty, risk and the potential for emotional exposure, we tend to pull back. The fear of offending someone takes priority over truth and honesty. Or our vulnerability-based leadership gets filtered out in the corporate review process, and we have something far less powerful than the raw original. But I believe we can communicate with sincerity and compassion while still honoring truth. I also believe we can build resilient cultures where sincerity wins.

In my second blog post of this series, I’ll go into a lot more detail on how my story breaks down into lessons you can apply to your business. Stay tuned.

About the writer
Nichole Kelly
Nichole Kelly
Nichole Kelly has been helping marketers unlock their full potential for over 17 years. From running corporate marketing teams to leading a successful marketing agency, she has experienced all “sides” of the marketing equation. As a lead strategist at WebMechanix, she helps brands discover their “why” and develop digital strategies that deliver impact beyond just profit, a gift she discovered after authoring the book How to Measure Social Media. She is a personal development aficionado and offers a level of self-awareness and feminine leadership that is refreshing and inspiring for every marketer.

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