Showing vulnerability in order to show strength is an irony many leaders have a hard time grasping.
Naturally, it is important – albeit sometimes difficult – to be vulnerable in our personal relationships. A certain degree of vulnerability is necessary for love and intimacy to be possible. But it is equally as important in developing our professional relationships as well.
I had a client who, as head of the department, was told by her supervisor that she needed to let people get to know her better in order to strengthen team chemistry and trust. For someone whose primary motivation had been to avoid any potential of being seen as “weak,” this was daunting.
“How can I open up to them? I don’t know if I can trust them to see that side of me,” she said.
I replied, “My guess is that they probably feel the same about you. But here’s the thing: When two people each need to receive trust before they’re willing to give it, there’s a stalemate. Eventually, one person has to take the first step, giving the other person the opportunity to demonstrate that they are trustworthy. That unlocks the door to change.”
I’m not saying you have to give them your bank account number and password. Sometimes it’s about laughing at yourself, or letting them know that you’re swamped and need their assistance.
Last week I got a frantic email from a client asking to have a strategy call the next morning before a high-stakes meeting that had just been organized. I wanted to help, but had a logistical challenge, so I told her the truth in full transparency: the only time I could squeeze her in the next morning was 9am, but I would be in ‘mommy mode’ at that time, since I had to take my son for a pediatric checkup at 10, and wouldn’t have childcare at that time. I couldn’t predict what mood he’d be in or how much he would interrupt, but I was willing to give it a try if she was.
Without hesitating, she said, “I’ll take it.”
So at 9am the video call comes in via FaceTime, as usual, but this time I answered in a t-shirt and jeans with my hair pulled back. I hoped she wouldn’t be distracted by my casual appearance. “I think we’re safe – he’s in his highchair and I’m feeding him breakfast, so he’s busy and happy for a while,” I told her.
My willingness to be vulnerable by letting my client see me this way was immediately rewarded.
“Oh, is he there? Can you turn the camera? I’d love to see him.”
I re-angled the camera so my client was face-to-face with the big blue eyes of my son. He stared back at her, curious about face on the screen. And then this high-powered CFO of a multi-billion-dollar company did the best thing possible: she launched straight into full-scale “peek-a-boo” mode.
My son’s face lit up immediately, and he squealed with laughter as played with him. After a moment or two I finally turned the phone back so we could get on with our meeting – and my son’s breakfast. She sighed with a big smile, and said, “That was the perfect antidote to the morning I’ve already had, thank you!”
From there we shifted gears and got down to business. We had each let down our guard with the other and I am sure that we would agree that the experience further strengthened our bond, both personally and professionally.
So once in a while, take a little chance: (metaphorically) play a bit of “peek-a-boo,” and let them see you.
Do you have other questions or feedback about vulnerability and leadership? If so, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss it with me personally!