Park Perspectives: It’s okay not to be okay

How being vulnerable makes you a stronger leader

By: Rachel Starr Two Year MBA '22
Park Fellows posing in front of mountains in Peru

Be a Vulnerable Leader: Embracing Your Struggles Makes You Approachable

When I first entered the remote halls of Cornell Johnson back in 2020, I found myself surrounded by so many wonderful peers who appeared to be taking everything in stride.

The shift from work to school? Easy.

The changed reality from normal to pandemic? We got this.

I remember looking around at the many faces on Zoom, wondering if anyone was feeling the panic I felt. Did anyone feel unsure about what the next few months would bring? Did anyone feel like the weight of the school’s expectations mixed with the pandemic would cause us to crumble? Was it just me?

I was warned about the idea of imposter syndrome when starting at business school, but this felt different. It felt like I was being slammed with reality whenever I tried to enjoy my MBA school experience and that I was the only one experiencing this.

Two weeks after starting at Johnson, I went out to dinner with other Park Fellows. As my friends chatted around me, I felt my walls begin to crumble. I unintentionally let out a sigh and everyone turned to look at me. “I’m struggling,” I said, “I don’t know how you guys are adjusting so well to this all.”

My classmates looked back at me, and I felt my stomach sink as I realized I had made a huge mistake. Why did I just let down my guard like this? What were my classmates going to say? They didn’t know me; they didn’t know that I was not always “weak” like this.

I should have just kept quiet.

Finally, the classmate on my left said, “Oh, Rachel, I’m struggling too.” And just like that I saw everyone’s walls crumble along with mine as we all leaned forward and started to vent about our challenges. My friend on the right started waving her arms in the air as she questioned how we were going to figure out how to make the most of our MBA experience while dealing with the pandemic. One friend rolled his eyes as he voiced frustrations with the latest group project he was working on that was near impossible to do on Zoom.

Soon, the table filled with laughter and promises to hold each other up as we dealt with the uncertainty of the MBA program. I left that dinner with close friends and a feeling of stability, more than I had felt in a long time since the pandemic started and I began my time at Cornell.

As I entered the door to my house that night, I had the realization that what I had viewed as a weak moment was actually a pivotal one in creating genuine friendships within my Park cohort.

A question formed in my mind: what would happen if I continued to embrace my vulnerability?

I wasn’t sure, but I was going to spend the rest of my time at business school finding out.


Realizing It’s More Than Okay Not to Be Okay: The Park Session on Vulnerability

As I began classes and extracurriculars at Cornell, I found my desire to put on a strong façade decrease daily. It wasn’t until I had a Park session on Vulnerability earlier this year that I realized I was unintentionally acting like a leader by showing my vulnerability.

As Laura Georgianna, Director of the Park Fellowship, explained the importance of showing vulnerability to bond with others, I looked around at my friends who had dinner with me in our second week at school last year. I nodded my head and smiled back at the PowerPoint presentation, realizing this was why I came to business school: to learn how to be a better leader by being genuinely myself.

When I met with Laura during our 1:1 session soon after, I voiced interest in the idea of vulnerability. “It helped me become closer to some of the Park fellows,” I said, “it also helped me realize we help our fellow classmates by showing others we don’t always have to have it all together.”

Laura nodded her head and mentioned that many classmates are struggling—especially in the second year—with acclimating to being back in person. “There’s normally a ramp-up period to adjust to the increased workload of being a second-year,” she explained, “and you guys didn’t get that.”

I realized more classmates than I thought were struggling too and by showing that we were all struggling, we were acting as a support system that could help alleviate those struggles.

The next day at Sage I was sitting with friends when I saw a classmate run through the atrium clearly in a panic. A friend sitting next to me explained that this classmate had a group meeting every Monday down in Breazzano and needed to run to make it.

That friend said, “Guys I’m really struggling with getting used to being back in person and being on time.”

I decided to repeat what I had discussed with Laura, “I’m really struggling too. You guys know we didn’t have the ramp-up period to get used to being back in person? I think that’s what’s really making this hard for me.” My friends all stared at me wide-eyed and then slowly nodded. Then, we all started discussing how to help each other get used to being back in person.

The next week, I saw that same friend walking calmly through the atrium. “Aren’t you going to be late?” I asked.

He smiled and shook his head, “No, I told my group I was struggling, and they pushed the meeting back 20 minutes.”


Teach Others To Be Vulnerable Too.

So often being vulnerable is viewed as a sign of weakness, but my two years at Johnson has taught me that being vulnerable is a sign of a strong leader. Faced with peers I trust; I was able to experiment with this idea of sharing my struggles. This has led to me making lifelong friendships and it has also led to me learning more about myself and others once the initial walls were knocked down.

When once I used to focus on saying the right things to appear to be competent, I now admit when I don’t know the answer to something or when I’m struggling to balance my priorities. It is my hope that this idea of appearing weak when being vulnerable will no longer stop us from sharing our struggles with classmates.

And I do have hope. Just the other day I was walking through Breazzano when I saw a member of my Park family sighing and pounding furiously on the keyboard. I saw a fellow Park member sit down next to her and give an empathetic smile. “It’s okay,” he said, “I struggled too.”

The author smiles for a picture, wearing sunglasses on a dock by the water.

Rachel Starr Two Year MBA '22

Rachel Starr Two Year MBA '22 is a first-year MBA student at Cornell Johnson School of Management and a member of the Park Leadership Fellows cohort for the Class of 2022. With a strong interest in consumer insights and storytelling, she has spent the past five years in marketing, most recently working at a media planning and buying agency as a Senior Marketing Associate. When she is not reading the latest advertising news she can be found at the barn where she is an avid horseback rider, or in her backyard playing with her two dogs, Doug and Clover.

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