If you think you are leading and no one is following you, then you are only taking a walk. -Afghan Proverb
Joan, the CEO of a national company, tells me that she feels distance from her staff and an underlying air of tension in the workplace. She knows she’s part of the problem.
Day after day, crushed by the pressure of her responsibilities, she’s isolating herself more and more in her office. She can’t just be “one of them” and open up, though. It’s not how leaders are supposed to act. If she does, she fears her team won’t respect her. And if she gets to know them better, it would make it harder when she has to give them bad news or turn down their ideas.
Listening as her leadership coach, it’s clear that Joan, in carrying out her tasks as a leader of her company, has become unmoored from her sense of self. I see this in many of the leaders I coach. They’re splintered between the need to have a firm hand and the equally important need to establish genuine relationships with their staff.
How to find the balance? Is it even possible?
I tell Joan that to find her stride as a leader, she has to start understanding herself and get clear on her purpose, values, and strengths.
To illustrate this point, I often use art to help my clients step back from their problem and shift their perspective around it. So, I show Joan a picture of one of the ICEBERG paintings by Frederic Edwin Church.
What part of herself is she keeping hidden below the water for fear of being too vulnerable?
It’s sharing that vulnerable part of herself with her team that will help them understand what she thinks, values, and believes. It will also show them that she cares, which will make it easier for them to trust and want to follow her lead.
Much like painting, building trust is a layering process. The more we reveal about ourselves, the stronger the relationship gets.
Yes, but wouldn’t showing my vulnerability make me weak in my team’s eyes? Joan asks.
I caution her to observe her spiraling negative thoughts and the negative feelings they create. I remind her that feelings are not facts and invite her to shift the focus back to what matters to her: her values.
I ask her: If your team knew what you stand for and saw you stay true to it with your actions, over and over, do you think they would see it as weakness or a strength?
And could you see that if you stayed true to yourself, your staff would respect and accept even your toughest decisions, regardless of whether they agree or not?
Joan starts to understand how this shift in perspective can open up a new, more empowering narrative for herself and help her lead in a way that makes her team believe in her and want to follow her.
But how do I start? She wonders.
I encourage her to begin with the core values she once identified to me – curiosity, fairness, humility, and love of learning. She smiles as she admits that learning energizes her. So, how could she use that love of learning in interacting with her staff?
“I could build time after meetings to have some casual conversations and ask them: What are they learning about themselves amid the year’s challenges? I can share my insights, and together we can talk about how to apply some of what we are learning to our work together.”
It sounds like a good first step to me and it was Joan’s willingness to explore herself that made it possible.
What about you?
What parts of yourself do you wish to understand more?
How can this make you more accessible to your team and allow them to fully appreciate the strength of your leadership?
For further exploration of the theme ‘vulnerability in leadership’, I highly recommend the work of Brené Brown. If you have any resources or suggestions that lend to this theme, please leave a comment below.