I was recently at the Pa. Governor’s Conference for Women with the theme of “rethink, resolve, renew”. It was a mighty meeting. There is nothing like thousands of women who are claiming their power to partner with their male counterparts in the world of work.
One of the sessions was of exceptional interest to me. The theme was about enabling authentic leadership. That word, authentic, is so much like love or truth, hard to describe, yet, you know it when you see it.
There were lots of definitions being considered, lots of words being thrown into the mix. Words like respectful, truthful, capable, direct, resourceful, innovative, and many others; I’m sure you can add to the list.
What struck me was the one word that has been in the lexicon of females for centuries never made the list. I believe it is one that does separate a good leader from the best. The word is “vulnerable”.
I wonder what this word suggests to you. Where I have seen the most powerful leadership and the most successful has been with leaders who can tell their truth in a way that is both honest and real. Here is an example: a leader of Chinese decent was sharing the results of a 360 feedback with her senior team. One of the common themes was that she held back on her emotions and when conflict occurred in the group she would leave the team to their own devices to settle the disputes.
In the meeting when she shared her feedback results she took a leap of faith, she shared herself. It went something like this: “I know many of you think I am extremely unemotional and I want to change the way I can be with you, especially when we have to resolve conflict. You see I grew up in America with parents who emigrated from China. The tendency in my culture and my family is to be more analytical and not talk about feelings. It gets in the way of getting the work done. I have often seen many of you as too open, too honest and I have judged that as being weak”.
As I was told later, she looked around the room and saw curiosity and interest. With that she became truly vulnerable and finished by saying “I must admit, sharing my feelings is not easy and I may need your help. I don’t even know what that will look like and I may stumble and fall. However, I am willing to take steps to be more open. I ask all of you to come and talk with me and if you see me pulling back I hope you will address that with me. I am sorry if I have let you down and my intention is to grow past my pattern of avoidance so we can find a new, higher level of collaboration.”
With that she sat down and what came next was, as she told it, beyond amazing. First there was quiet and then someone of her 10 direct reports began to applaud, then others joined in until she was given a full round of appreciative clapping. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, something she had never done in a business environment, and then quietly, one of her male colleagues said “I speak only for myself, yet I have a sense others may feel the same way. You are a powerful force and a wonderful leader, today is special, for today we know you as a woman, as an honest and real human being. All I can say is thanks for taking the risk, it really matters.”
Fast forward three months. The report I received was that the team had become so open, so creative, that the whole company was paying attention and “wanted what they have”. So, let’s hear it for vulnerability!!