January 20, 2018.
Recently I was writing a post about inclusion, and someone editing it pointed out that, while she understood I had to approach it from a position of humility as a white cisgender man writing about inclusion, I was spending a lot of time beating myself up to emphasize my humility, and that perhaps I was going a bit too far.
It was an edit to a blog post, but it hit me. I thought to myself, “Sometimes there’s a fine line between humility and hating yourself.” Then I just sat there for a while with that thought. Quietly. My eyes welled up a bit. I was sad. The feelings receded. I was OK.
This is both a true story from an hour ago, and also a good example of what I think about when I think about vulnerability: sharing more of who you are emotionally than people expect, and often more than they’re comfortable with hearing. If you read enough management books, you’ll get this sense that there is a skill called “authenticity” for you to learn, but I think it’s less something that you need to add, than having the courage and the willingness to put away some of your masks for a while.
Occasionally, try being human.
Vulnerability is one of my core management and leadership skills, and that’s funny, because I’m absolutely not someone who’s inherently comfortable sharing much about myself. Rather, I have a fascinating problem: my skin is so pale, my skin is so thin, that when I’m embarrassed I flush a crimson red. I glow red when I’m upset or frustrated. I’m also pretty bad at concealing how I feel. I wouldn’t have picked either of these traits, and while I’m trying hard to get better at the latter, I think success as a leader is about simultaneously improving yourself and building a leadership style that works with who you are today.
I’ve found this to be particularly powerful when connecting with folks who’re frustrated. Maybe they’ve temporarily lost the ability to wear their own professional masks, and you can meet them in that place, and have a real conversation. I’ve also found it powerful when struggling to find common ground with others, cutting through from surface level disagreements and getting to what’s motivating us: fear our teams doubting our competence, fear of our own managers losing trust in us, fear of our peers not liking us, fear of being wrong.
If this resonates with you, but especially if it doesn’t resonate with you or if it sounds scary or intimidating, then it’s worth taking some time to think about the last time you had a serious conflict with someone–or the last time that you avoided having an important conflict–and whether you walked away from each other with a better understanding of each other’s motivations. If not, think about whether you could have shared where you were emotionally coming from, and if that might have helped things end differently.
As a final thought, some people in some environments view vulnerability as weakness. I believe those folks are so uncomfortable with themselves that they can’t imagine a world where they honestly share more of themselves. It’s either true or at least helps me feel better about myself.