A Leadership Lesson on Vulnerability — from the Oscars

Anyone who watched the 2014 Academy Awards — and 36 million people did — had to be struck by the courageous candor of Graham Moore, the 33-year-old writer who won an Oscar for The Imitation Game screenplay.

The movie starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who is remembered today as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence. Turing did as much as anyone to win World War II for the Allies by cracking Enigma, the Third Reich's complex, mechanized process of encoding messages.

In spite of his intellectual heroics, Turing was prosecuted for the crime of homosexuality in the early 1950s. He accepted chemical castration in lieu of imprisonment and died a year or two later of cyanide poisoning, apparently by his own hand.

Moore, the young screenwriter, has something in common with Turing, and it isn't, as many people assumed, his sexual orientation. Rather it is a history of depression over self-perceived, felt differences from mainstream society, and an accompanying inclination toward suicide.

After the envelope was opened and his name was read Sunday night, Moore acted on an impulse. He told himself he would rarely have such an opportunity. Staring into the bright lights and the little black circles of the television cameras, he decided to use his 45 seconds of airtime to "say something meaningful." That, he did.

“When I was 16 years old," he declared, "I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different and I felt like I did not belong.

"And now I am standing here, and so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or or she doesn’t fit in anywhere.

“Yes, you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird. Stay different."

The impact of such a powerful statement is immeasurable but likely huge. Technology is partly to credit, for television brought his message to millions of people. But without Moore's courage, there would have been no message to broadcast. Do the math, and you can measure the impact of his courage. If only 1 percent of the viewers are contemplating suicide, and if only 1 percent of them change their mind because of his words, it's entirely possible that Moore saved more than three thousand lives simply by choosing courage over convention.

The courage it took is the courage of vulnerability: the courage to disclose something self-effacing, self-denigrating, self-critical, or self-limiting that enables other people to find, see, and approach your essential personhood. For most of us, and especially for successful people who are often thrust into the role of leadership, that is counter-intuitive. Everything conspires against it. Few leaders ever muster the courage to go there, and thus they never achieve the full authenticity, strength, and truth of a deep leadership connection with people.

So herein lies a lesson for leaders everywhere: Risk vulnerability. You have nothing to lose but a few barnacles of comfort, and, in emerging as the leader you could become, you and the people you might lead have everything to gain.

You need not go to the length that Graham Moore went. You may want to stop at admitting you are afraid, or you are uncertain, or you are missing something that your peers take for granted, or any of a hundred other things in a similar vein. But take a step, however small, in that direction. Choose courage over convention.

For my own part, convention tells me not to post this essay, for I may be offending the reader who has lost a loved one to suicide, or I may be coming across as dark, or I may be seen as overvaluing vulnerability in a culture that rewards bravado. It is requiring a thimble of courage to proceed. Graham Moore, you inspire me.

For most of us, it will never be a matter of saving three thousand lives, or even three. But we just may touch someone who is walking the road of life alone and wants to be part of something large. That's enough for a day's work, isn't it?