Guru Columns

Greg Smith:
Business Paradox: Building Strength from Vulnerability

August 1, 2017

By any measure, Oprah Winfrey is phenomenally successful. She is a billionaire. She enjoys the adoration of millions of fans from her long-running, nationally syndicated talk show and owns a thriving media empire.

It’s all very impressive, especially when you consider where she came from. An African-American woman, born to a single mother in the deep South, who endured sexual abuse by two relatives and a family friend and became pregnant at 14, only to see that child die shortly after birth.

Somehow, she made her way into television news and was fired from one reporting job for being “unfit for TV.”

So how did she become a phenomenon? She did it by leveraging her vulnerability.

Most of us think of vulnerability as a deficit. It means we’re weak, overly sensitive or submissive.

Vulnerability is not necessarily a negative trait despite what most people think.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, famously said, “Out of your vulnerability will come your strength.” Oprah provides an excellent case study.

After working with many patients over several years, Freud came to understand that dealing with vulnerabilities head-on led to feelings of confidence and happiness. The reverse is also true. Ignoring your vulnerabilities only makes you insecure and unhappy.

In business, especially one as rough and cut-throat as television, no one wants to expose any chinks in his armor. We think colleagues and customers won’t respect us, which would certainly threaten our careers and livelihoods.

Consider this, because it’s what Oprah figured out to her benefit:

  • All good relationships are built on trust.
  • Trust is built on credibility.
  • And nothing makes a person more credible than candor.

Honestly owning our vulnerabilities is a sure way of building trust and rapport with anyone and that can only help an individual’s career.

In Oprah’s case, she just seemed real to her loyal viewers. She openly shared the story of her traumatic childhood with millions of strangers and they loved her for it. She also pointed out her struggles with weight control and, again, the viewers responded with love. Later, when Winfrey gave away cars and European vacations to in-studio fans, the recipients never thought, “Well, she’s rich… she can afford it. Plus, it helps her ratings.” Instead they thought, “Oprah understands that we struggle financially. She gets us and so she is generous with us.”

And Oprah’s popularity and earnings continued to climb toward the stratosphere.

We can all get wrapped up in the myth that others are stronger, smarter or better than we are. Yet we know intellectually that no one is perfect. So, if others are hiding their vulnerabilities, you know they are holding something back from you.

Who wants to do business with someone who is holding out on you? Trust is too important a commodity in today’s world.

If you want to build trust that increases business, take a note from Oprah Winfrey and let your vulnerabilities be your strength. Open up and connect on a human level with those you work with and those you do business with and they will reward you for it. Oprah figured that out and so can we.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.