…and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.  ― Audre

You Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve

A number of years ago, our business took a revenue hit that forced us to eliminate a few positions.  During the process, I met with every employee individually to discuss the situation, his/her role within the organization, and our plans moving forward.  After calling one of our employees into my office, I immediately told him that his job was safe and that everything would be “alright”.  He waved his hand and smiled at me saying: “You wear your heart on your sleeve.”  A comment suggesting that he could tell things were “ok” by my non-verbal queues.

Afterward, I pondered his comment for a while, wondering if it was a good thing.  Building and managing a business is a gritty, high impact adventure.  There are good days and bad with a host of highs and lows in between.  As leaders, we have to display steadiness and resolute determination even if we sometimes waver inside. Was I telegraphing the ups and downs inadvertently?  Was this a leadership flaw that could potentially undermine my effectiveness?

The Dangers of Transparency

In my post, The Slippery Slope of Transparency, I talk about the dangers of transparency relative to leading.  I argue the difference between honesty and transparency and discuss the importance of recognizing when transparency is negative for the organization.  When my employee called me out for unknowingly being transparent in a tough situation, it hit a nerve.  What else was I conveying without realizing it?  In this case, it was “good” because we were smiling and the result of the conversation was positive for both.  What might happen if I conveyed negativity or uncertainty about people, a decision, or our business?  I could feed fears or foster doubt very quickly if my heart remained on my sleeve.

Fast forward to today: time and progress have changed our situation.  Challenges remain but they are new and different.  Life goes on and we live to fight another day.  My view on that interaction has also shifted.   Now, I think my vulnerability in that moment was a gift – for me and for my team.  Why?  Because it showed my humanity and brought us closer together during a tough time.

Vulnerability Fosters Connection

In The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin tells us that vulnerability fosters connection with others.  How?  When we truly own our words, deeds, and situation, we make ourselves vulnerable because it is clear where we stand.  Everyone can see it.  Some may choose to reject us but the moment of vulnerability is powerfully engaging for those who do accept us.  When we show vulnerability, we are tapping into a place that everyone understands and it can connect us in a powerful way.  When we display our humanity, everyone gets it.

These days, I view vulnerability a little differently than when I originally pondered the encounter above.  I reject the notion that it equates to weakness though it is possible to allow it to make you weak.  My experience has sensitized me to my carriage, facial expressions, and reactions.  Not compulsive about them but aware.  If my “heart is on my sleeve”, I need to make sure it is an accurate reflection.   I still feel that it is critical for leaders to maintain a “stiff upper lip” in tough times, but it is clear that there is power in our ability to be vulnerable.  Displaying our humanity can be a strength.

The Upside of Transparency and Vulnerability

The opportunity in transparency is pulling your team together by giving them a clear view of the opportunities and challenges facing your organization.  When the team members understand the big picture, you are able to engage their hearts and minds in the challenge.  Admitting that you don’t have all of the answers and that you need their help may make you vulnerable but it also sends a powerful message about the nature of your leadership and their role on your team.

Ultimately, in spite of the importance of the leader as lighthouse amid rough waters, there is a place for softness and vulnerability; a place to acknowledge the humanity that ties all of us together.  And together, we are stronger.