I was leading a client offsite. The senior team was scoring their Objectives & Key Results with their level of confidence in hitting the KRs that year. As they plotted the confidence scores on a flip chart, the situation wasn’t looking good. We took a break, and I stood with the CEO staring at what amounted to his “report card”. He said, “This breaks my heart and pisses me off.” His team wasn’t with him, he saw more potential than they did, and it hurt to feel alone in that.
This CEO, who had earned my deep respect, opened the meeting after the break, essentially saying that he was bruised by the output, and more so, he shared that it reinforced the loneliness of his role. Then, he asked for help. He asked the team to tell him what they needed to raise their confidence. In that moment, everything shifted.
Previously, the team felt they were disappointing the CEO, but in that moment, he created an opening - he made it safe for them to be more honest with them. His vulnerability - his admission that he didn’t know the way forward and his request for support brought the team closer together. and inspired them to greater levels of candor and accountability. They crafted a plan that they could believe in, and in doing so demonstrated their support for the CEO, deepening their ownership for collective success.
My business partner, Dave, and I have both gone on this leadership journey - along with many of the leaders we’ve worked with in our career. Who hasn’t felt the compulsion to demonstrate your mastery, have answers to all the questions and look like you have it a bit more figured out than the people reporting to you? Yet, this inclination to show up as a ‘strong’ leader and mask one’s sense of vulnerability (along with the illusion that those are separate things) dilutes our ability to actually create the conditions for teams to thrive. The best leaders and the best teams know that showing our humanity is essential for sustained performance.
So why the disconnect then? Why the instinct to distance ourselves from our honest feelings and consequently distance ourselves from our teams? One reason: The stakes are often higher than we want to admit, so we avoid looking them in the eye.
Work is literally our livelihood. If we take seriously the outsized role that work plays in shaping our lives - the stakes become very high and extremely personal. Pretending that isn’t so, is… inauthentic. Authenticity - based on every single leadership / relationship / personal development book I’ve ever read - is critical to healthy relationships. And healthy relationships are the foundation of team performance.
At Volition Partners - we’ve analyzed our diagnostic database for correlations and found leadership trust as one of the most important correlates with performance. Trust drives performance and having the courage to be vulnerable enough to show your feelings drives trust.
Consider this blog post an invitation: Make it safe for your team to bring their full humanity to work by showing yours. Want passionate employees who are fired up about your shared mission? Well, you’ll have to let them be frustrated, upset, sad and scared. As Brene Brown would say, you can’t have just the easy parts of being human - daring to lead means bringing the full spectrum.
Here are two very simple tips to help you bring a bit more humanity into your leadership:
Dial up your curiosity about the lives of your team: When checking in, avoid the, “How you doing?” / “Fine” perfunctory pattern. Take it deeper. Really listen, get curious, ask questions, make connections with your own life.
Increase transparency around your feelings: When something frustrates you, say so. When you are delighted, tell your team. If you are concerned or scared or confused, let them know. I am not suggesting a show of emotion that violates your personal boundaries - or theirs - just a level of transparency so your team knows how you feel, and so they can understand the reasons behind your decisions and actions. Let them see you the human, not just you the leader.
Give it a shot and let us know how it goes. We love learning and we are genuinely curious about how our thoughts are (or are not) helpful to you.
Keep an eye out for our next post, featuring the legendary Dan Doty.