Don’t let them see you sweat.
I’m sure you’ve heard that advice. Even when you’re not sure what to do, even when you feel scared, it’s best for you, as a leader, to wear a veneer of invincibility.
An oak seedling: vulnerable but strong
For years, that’s how I tried to be. Not the superhero who shoved everyone out of the way and said “I’ve got this,” but the calm, steady, implacable one who never let anything ruffle him and who (especially) never admitted to needing help.
And what did that get me? Respect, maybe. But not the loyalty or affection of my team members. I think most of them saw me as aloof, above it all — able to connect with them only on a superficial level.
As I’ve grown wiser I’ve learned that vulnerability isn’t a bad thing. A couple of weeks ago, the Twitter #PoCchat conversation (every Monday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern) focused on vulnerability in leadership.
I like the definition Randy Thio offered during the chat: Being vulnerable is the deliberate absence of any barriers that may protect you physically and/or emotionally.
In other words, vulnerability is about your being open. Honest. Transparent.
Without vulnerability, you might come across as solid, dependable, even invincible. But you’ll also come across as distant and unsympathetic.
When people think you’re incapable of relating to them, it’s hard for them to trust you or feel loyalty toward you.
So try being the person you are rather than a superhero — indestructible but unrelatable — or a robot — steady and dependable but aloof. Try removing your mask.
When you remove your mask you can relax, because you don’t have to devote your energy to playing a role. You’re more confident, because all of us are better at being ourselves than at trying to be someone else.
Yes, you’ll be more confident. Seem counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Many of us associate vulnerability with having less confidence — with quaking in our boots, with trying not to let them see us sweat.
Although it might seem that way, it turns out that vulnerability and confidence complement each other. An insecure leader is almost never vulnerable: the last thing they want is for people to see their imperfections. It takes more confidence to be vulnerable.
It’s important that you get that. You don’t want your people to see you as a superhero or a robot. You do want them to see that you’re confident. Confident that you and your team can bring about a good outcome. Confident enough to take off your mask and let them see that you’re human too.
If you’d like to work on your vulnerability, I can suggest two things: tell your story, and be true.
Tell your story
Don’t be a man or woman of mystery. Be approachable. Make it easier for other people to relate to you.
If you’ve been in the working world for a while, you’ve probably had experiences that bear on the situation you’re in now. Share those experiences with the team. Even if you think of those experiences as failures, focus on what the failures taught you and how they prepared you for today’s situation.
As Randy Thio observed, telling your story invariably exposes you to judgment and criticism, further demonstrating vulnerability.
You already know that a leader should value the truth and should never act deceitfully.
Does that mean that when the situation turns really bad, when you see everything falling down and you’re losing heart, you should be open and candid about absolutely everything?
Yes and no. Yes, but be careful to keep things in perspective.
Since you’ve likely experienced a similar problem or crisis before, you can lend insight that’ll help you and the team deal with today’s situation. Help your team see beyond the immediate; help them see the bigger picture.
Maybe you feel anxious, even frightened. Instead of expressing those emotions publicly, acknowledge them to yourself and then ask yourself whether they’re really warranted. No matter how bad things get, the sky isn’t really falling.
Once you’ve worked past those emotions, talk about how you did it.
Keep your poise. Don’t be the one who spreads panic.
And if you need help, be honest about that too. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’ve failed, or that your confidence is wavering. It simply means you’re no different from everyone else.
What it boils down to
Vulnerability. It boils down to your objective as a leader: do you want to appear invincible, or do you want to earn people’s trust and loyalty? Is leadership all about you, or is it about the people you lead?
For me, vulnerability is part of what it means to be a servant leader. I’m not all the way there yet. I’m still learning.
Be confident. Be steady and consistent. But don’t try to be something you’re not. Be vulnerable.