Lessons in vulnerability from an over-achieving leader

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“I am sharing the results of my self-assessment with my leadership team,” my overachiever coaching client told me on our last call. Let’s call her Diane. “Each of us have completed the self–assessment and we are now going to share our results. Then, we will work through them together.” She explained. I grinned on the other end of the call. I knew the magnitude of what she had just shared, despite her nonchalant manner.

Afraid to expose ourselves

Diane’s willingness to exposure her shortcomings to her team was a vastly different response than I would have expected a couple of years ago. When I began coaching Diane, I learned that she had spent years protecting herself from feedback, judgment, and criticism. Diane dreaded performance reviews because they would shine a light on any flaws or imperfections she had. Acknowledging weaknesses was bad enough, but for Diane to have it then hashed over in a performance review was a near death experience.

Overachievers desire perfection

As an overachiever myself, with incredibly high expectations, I understand the desire only to let others see the impeccable side of me. If you also recognize yourself as this go-getter or Type A personality, then you are well aware of how hard it is to let your guard down to anyone.

In leadership, being highly ambitious often goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism. While this can seem like an essential quality for governance positions, this leadership style has its downsides.

Am I talking about you perhaps?

Consider your answers to these two questions.

Does this describe you?

  • High expectations, particularly of yourself
  • Perfectionist
  • Controlling

Do you desire to:

  • Excel at everything
  • Be perfect
  • Do no wrong i.e. never fail, fall or stumble, especially in public

Perfectionism and leadership can clash

The drawback to this style of leading is that it builds an obstacle between you and those you lead. Your employees:

  • see your accomplishments and achievements and wonder how they could ever do it as well.
  • feel as if you are constantly judging them as not being as perfect as you.
  • don’t approach you because no one would want to admit to you that they made a mistake, don't know how to do something or aren't as good as you.

Without meaning to, aspiring, energetic and sometimes pushy and aggressive leaders keep others at arms length. That distance inhibits you from mentoring, coaching and growing your team. It also hampers your own development.

Using vulnerability as a bridge

Let us go back to Diane for a moment. In the past couple of years, she has done an astonishing amount of personal growth work. She’s developed awareness of what is critical to her both personally and professionally. Diane has identified her priorities as being her family, her health and demonstrating strong leadership. Diane used that clarity to develop her goals, values and a personal vision of what she can do with her organization.

Increased awareness awakens in us the desire to grow

It is with this new awareness that Diane has been able to let go of the need to be perfect. Diane has a better understanding that leadership is a journey. She knows part of that voyage involves recognizing and working on her shortcomings. That knowledge has created within her a desire to work on some of those characteristics and habits that, in the past, she wanted to avoid acknowledging as even existing.

The leadership journey

When leaders go through a journey of personal growth, their awareness increases in regards to how they lead and their impact others. The experience of looking at themselves allows them to:

  • Recognize they are not perfect
  • Let go of the need to be perfect
  • Admit to others they are not perfect
  • Ask for help to grow

Excited about exploring imperfections

Diane's admission that she was planning to share the not-so-perfect results of her assessment with her management team was vulnerability in action. Recognizing areas of weakness, admitting imperfections and asking for help are demonstrations of vulnerability according to Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. A social worker and shame and vulnerability researcher, Brown explains that vulnerability is not weakness. Instead, Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.

  • Diane was likely a bit uncertain about how her staff would react to her less than stellar results.
  • There is a risk for Diane to admit to her staff that she struggles in some areas.
  • Saying I am not perfect exposes much of Diane’s inner emotions and feelings.

Vulnerability grows strong teams

What Diane experienced as a result of being vulnerable, is a depth in her relationship with her staff that wasn’t there before. By modeling honesty, authenticity and integrity, she opens the door for her staff members to do the same. The team experienced what Brown has found in her research; an increased level of trust.

Daring greatly

When a leader carefully, and over time demonstrates vulnerability, she sets in motion a snowball effect for others to do the same. In time, what is created is an organizational culture of trust and commitment. The spark to create that kind of culture is often the leader taking a big, bold, and courageous step.

Aim for excelling together

Overachieving leaders can excel in leadership. To do so, they need to be careful not to intimidate their employees or to build walls between them and their team. When a leader vulnerably admits their limitations, flaws and challenges, they encourage others on the team to do the same. Together, working through their combined challenges the team grows stronger. Thus, they excel. Placing individual and team growth and development on the foundation of vulnerability is key to success.

Kathy is a leadership coach for women who want to strengthen their leadership and find balance in life. She mentors females as they rediscover their purpose, passion and persistence for life while dealing with office politics, jerk bosses and the challenges of family life. Kathy gives her ladies the hope and inspiration they need along with a kick in the pants to make positive change in their lives. Find her at silverrivercoaching.com or on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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