“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.”
— Jim Valvano
I thought the team retreat was going great until the CEO left the room. We were halfway through the session. The team was finally opening up. “I just cracked the code.” — I was thinking to myself.
But, I was wrong.
Our behavior reflects on others.
Like an acute sounding board, our brain internally echoes what others do and feel. Just by looking at someone we experience them, research shows.
A team or organizational transformation is a reflection of our own personal transformation. If we want others to be courageous, we must first give our very best.
So, what really happened with this CEO?
What You Reflect Comes Back to You
Driving change requires people to become comfortable with being uncomfortable — and it starts with us.
I didn’t launch my consultancy for financial independence reasons — I wanted spiritual freedom. After 20 plus years of consulting, I needed a clean slate. Unlike regular consultants, I wanted to experiment freely.
Freedom meant choosing the clients I want to work with or not. But, also exposing myself more than usual.
Those who have worked with me know that I’m not shy.
I’m comfortable speaking up my mind — I love to challenge and be challenged. However, something was missing. My employers expected me to tell clients what they wanted to hear — not for me to be authentic.
That didn’t stop me from speaking up. But, I wasn’t giving my best self. I wasn’t happy with I was reflecting on others either.
Authenticity can become invisible to us but not to others.
Our brains are wired to read cues so subtle that, even when we don’t consciously register them, our bodies respond.
Someone’s smile activates our own smile muscles in our faces. According to research, we internally register what that person is feeling. As a consequence, if their smile is fake, we are more likely to feel uncomfortable.
What we give reflects on others.
A woman realized that she was doing an MBA not because she wanted to, but to please her husband. That same night she called him and let him know she was dropping out. The workshop had nothing to do with career change, but the experience still touched her.
Another participant decided she didn’t want to be “miss nice” anymore. People were taking advantage of her. This young woman wasn’t planning to go rogue. She just wanted to take care of her dreams — to become a priority. This happened after she finished writing her obituary.
Did my facilitation or exercises help them see the light? Probably. But, something more important happened.
Empathy makes us visible to others.
When someone is upset but suppresses their feelings, we may not realize that they are angry. However, a study shows that even if unnoticed, their anger can increase our blood pressure.
When we bring our best self to every moment, we inspire others to be authentic too.
Empathy is the strongest superpower a change agent can have. It’s not about being pitiful, but understanding. It helps us appreciate other people’s ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. We get to see their uniqueness.
What Bends, Doesn’t Break
Driving change requires rebel leaders.
When we think of rebels, we think of trouble. But, true rebels don’t break things out of joy but to find the way out. They know how to break the habits that hold us back. Rebels challenge groupthink and routines.
Being vulnerable is a form of rebellion.
Rebels ask questions others don’t — they look at a problem from multiple perspectives. They don’t pretend to have all the answers. They are okay with looking ignorant or making mistakes. Finding new solutions requires emptying our minds first.
We have a fixed idea of rebels in the business world. Take Steve Jobs, for example. We often think of rebels as creative, but also difficult to work with. It’s time to shift our thinking.
As Francesca Gino said, “To be a rebel does not mean you have to be an outcast or a troublemaker. Effective rebels are people who break rules in ways that are positive and productive.”
The author of Rebel Talent believes that we don’t have to be born a rebel — we can all become one.
Leaders are often taught to keep a distance and project a perfect image. To look flawless, confident, and in control. Disclosing one’s vulnerability in front of our coworkers is perceived as an act of weakness.
Rebels are courageous because they are comfortable being vulnerable.
The CEO who left the room wasn’t unhappy with the team offsite. She just wasn’t comfortable in her own skin. Her team was opening up, but she couldn’t. She felt naked. And left.
I thought I lost a client for good. Until, a couple of weeks later, she called me to share her progress — she decided to open up. It wasn’t easy though. But, she took the courage and got back in front of her team. She asked for forgiveness.
Acknowledging why she left the team retreat while everyone else was playing along requires courage. It was a first step to embrace her vulnerable side. She realized that bending wasn’t a weakness, but a strength.
As Confucius said, “The green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm.”
Vulnerability doesn’t mean being weak but accepting we have flaws and weaknesses. When you recognize you are not perfect, you keep the door open. That’s how you grow.
Being vulnerable is letting ourselves be seen — our true self becomes an inspiration to others.
Being Vulnerable Is a Responsibility
People can tell when we are not genuine.
As research by the University of Wisconsin shows, while we may try to look perfect or in charge, we might also be perceived as inauthentic. Trust is not easy to build — it requires courage.
Being vulnerable doesn’t mean being weak. Not everyone is ready to accept and acknowledge their weaknesses. But, that’s the price you pay to liberate your best self.
“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” — Brené Brown
Leading change is a mission full of responsibilities. You are accountable for what you reflect on your team, your organization, and yourself.
1. Vulnerability inspires teams
Vulnerability emerged as the key theme from an in-depth study of successful CEOs. Especially for those who experienced remarkable personal growth and professional success in their businesses.
Adaptability to change requires bending without breaking
After receiving harsh feedback, one of the CEOs chose to be vulnerable. He recognized he was too harsh and harming the team. After sharing his personal plan to his top 60 managers, he generated huge personal support.
The team was so inspired that the company outperformed its competitors six years in a row.
Driving change is not difficult; resistance makes it difficult. We need the face our fears head-on. And deal with we can’t anticipate or control.
2. A vulnerable culture seeds trust and innovation
The CEO of a large telco told me that he thought he knew his team very well. Until I asked them to share the last time they laughed, felt love, cried, lied, stole something, and thought about suicide.
Disclosing our vulnerability in front of our coworkers gives others permission to give their best.
This executive team has been working together for almost a decade. But never felt so comfortable sharing their mistakes before. Feeling exposed strengthened their relationships. Embracing everyone’s vulnerability made it feel safer to speak up.
Organizations are not initially open to embracing authenticity. They are okay when we talk about innovation, creativity, and change. But, vulnerability makes everyone uncomfortable. However, teams can’t experiment without frailty and empathy.
As Brené Brown explains, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
Adaptability to change is all about being vulnerable. Fresh ideas are fragile — they need a safe space to blossom.
3. Vulnerability liberates the best version of ourselves
One of the best compliments I’ve ever received had nothing to do with my smarts, ideas, or skills. It was all about what I reflected on others. That’s what drove me to write this post.
“He is not asking us to do anything he hasn’t done himself first,” one participant shared with the rest. We were wrapping up a very demanding workshop. This person saw my vulnerable self and felt inspired to leave his comfort zone too.
We are told that leaders shouldn’t ask people to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. That sounds tricky to me. Leaders are in a more comfortable position. What seems difficult for others, might not be that hard for them.
Leaders must feel as uncomfortable as their teams do.
As a change facilitator, I like to keep that present. Each person is fighting a different battle — discomfort is a personal experience. I want to inspire people to become their best version, not to stretch as far as I would.
Vulnerability creates accountability. It makes us responsible for bringing the best out of our teams, organizations, and ourselves.
We are all good at expecting something from others. We want our leaders, coworkers or family to give more. But, what about ourselves?
Empathy and vulnerability are catalysts for change. Our human frailty is more inspirational than any perfect image. What we reflect on others always comes back to us.
Are you vulnerable and genuine? People always find out in the end. Give your best self.
I’m a change instigator helping people and organizations create positive change. I advise, write, and speak on team development and culture transformation. Receive my weekly insights or follow me on LinkedIn.
Originally published on Liberationist blog.