Tag Archives: servant leadership

Go ahead and let them see you sweat

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.

small-oak-tree

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.

Be true

You already know that a leader should value the truth and should never act deceitfully.

Courage isn't the absence of fear, but the triumph over itDoes 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.

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A parable for our time

Your periodic reminder that true leadership isn’t about exerting power and influence. It’s about having the heart and mind of a servant.

But he, a lawyer, willing to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went on the road near Washington, D.C., and an old injury suddenly flared up, and he fell down half dead.

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Rembrandt’s “The Good Samaritan” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

And by chance there came down a certain White House staffer that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Congressman, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

But an immigrant, as she journeyed, came where he was: and when she saw him, she had compassion on him,

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, and helped him into her car, and brought him to a clinic, and took care of him.

And when she departed, she took out her Visa card, and gave it to the doctor, and said to him, Take care of him; and whatever you spend, I will repay you.

Now which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to him who was sick?

And he said, The one who showed mercy on him. Then Jesus said to him, Go, and do likewise.

– Luke 10:29-37 (paraphrase)

Your opportunity at last

Imagine this:

After years of toiling in obscurity you find yourself in a position of power and influence. After years of never being heard you’re now being sought out.

You waited a long time for your day in the sun. Now that it’s arrived, how do you handle your change in fortune?

Practice humility

spotlight

When the limelight shines on you, don’t let it blind you.

Even though the limelight is now shining on you, remember that only recently you were in darkness. When you were struggling, you probably worked hard to keep things in perspective and to maintain healthy self-respect. Lacking power and authority didn’t mean you were less valuable than other people.

Now you need to work just as hard to hold onto that sense of perspective. You’re still the same person. Having power and authority doesn’t make you better than everyone else. If you try to act like you are better, you’ll likely lose people’s respect — and with it, you’ll lose your power and authority.

Finally, it’s not for nothing that there are so many quotations and proverbs about the need for humility: For pryde goeth before and shame commeth after (John Heywood). Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:14).

Be a servant leader

Having been down in the trenches for so long, you have a unique perspective. What did you wish your managers had done for you? What did you wish they knew about you?

Now you can put into practice the things you wanted from your old managers. Now is your chance to become, in the words of Robert K. Greenleaf, a servant leader: a servant first, a leader second.

Say things that are worth hearing

At long last, people are listening to you. It wasn’t easy to get their attention; it’s even harder to hold onto it. Don’t waste your opportunity by saying things that are self-serving, manipulative, or deceptive.


These thoughts were prompted by two baseball teams — the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians — who’ve just qualified for the World Series and who’ve gone a very long time since winning their last championships (1908 and 1948, respectively).

Over the next few days the Cubs and the Indians will try to make the most of the opportunity they have. After decades in the darkness, they’re in the limelight. I can’t wait to see how they’ll respond.

What about you? Did you ever find yourself in the limelight after years in darkness? What did you do with your opportunity?