Vulnerability Is Your Ticket Out of the Leadership Fishbowl
Business leaders who embrace their own shortcomings can avoid imposter syndrome while inspiring co-workers.
No offense to your MBA, but you learned everything you need to know about being an executive in kindergarten. Business schools provide the strategies necessary to run companies, but true leadership comes down to understanding people.
Think back to your first day of kindergarten. Unless you were a wildly outgoing 5-year-old, you probably felt shy and scared. What if I don’t make any friends? What if the schoolwork is hard? What if I miss my mom? These anxieties aren’t all that different from those experienced by business leaders (aside from the mom part). The fix is the same as it was back then: Be brave. Walk into the room, do your best, and work to build new connections.
I’ve worked with numerous intelligent, capable executives who have years of relevant experience. They often suffer from insecurities that we all face at some point in our lives. One of the more common issues is imposter syndrome, which causes otherwise qualified leaders to struggle with the fear of being “found out.” This can cause people to question their every action and isolate themselves from colleagues.
Leaders who struggle with feelings of inadequacy are reluctant to confide in their peers. They stuff their feelings and eventually end up living in a lonely leadership fishbowl. Given that solitary leaders are less effective than their more sociable peers, their fears of falling short often come true.
Sharing your uncertainties is unbelievably liberating; it also humanizes you and lets your team know you care. Escape the leadership fishbowl by embracing your vulnerability.
Let Your Authenticity Flag Fly
Climbing the corporate ladder makes you more visible, and, yes, more people will know if you fall. But that doesn’t mean you should shut everyone out and strive to be superhuman. Being open with colleagues fosters the goodwill and understanding you’ll need to guide the team through inevitable crises.
A great example of someone embracing vulnerability stems from my work with an executive who wanted to foster a culture of development in her company. She invited me to attend a weekly staff meeting to tell her team about the coaching work we were doing together. She hoped she might inspire them to do the same thing.
To be clear, this isn’t the norm. Many executives try to hide personal improvement work because they worry it makes them look weak or deficient. Her experience was quite different: Team members started to sign up for professional development courses and have sought feedback on skills and behaviors they’re working to improve.
If you’re forthcoming about your insecurities, your staff will feel comfortable acknowledging their own. They’ll be realistic about their abilities instead of feeling stressed out from trying to hide shortcomings. Leadership isn’t limited to generating profits — it involves inspiring people and providing a guiding hand. Authenticity can help you energize and advise your team.
Notice What You’re Whispering in Your Own Ear
Bullying in the workplace is rampant — one study found that 75 percent of people had observed their co-workers being mistreated at some point in their careers. But what happens when you’re bullying yourself?
Jot down a list of the phrases that run through your mind during a typical day, and observe how often negativity slips in. Thoughts such as “I could do better,” “I’m not as good as them,” and “Don’t embarrass yourself” can crush your confidence. After you’ve acknowledged your negative thoughts, consider how you can reframe them in a more positive light.
If you’re struggling to eliminate the negative self-talk, try this exercise: Divide a piece of paper into two sections. On the left side, write down the beliefs you have about yourself. Focus on thoughts that typically slip into your mind during your daily routine.
Once you have a comprehensive list, move to the right side of the page. Rewrite each statement to reflect a more supportive state of mind. For instance, “I’m not as good as my predecessor” becomes “I can learn from his example.” “I’m a failure” is revised to “I hit a stumbling block, but I’m improving.”
The left side represents the habit patterns of your mind. Replacing them with positive affirmations helps you rewire the way you think about yourself. You can literally (and figuratively) rewrite your story and self-perspective with a pen and a piece of paper.
It might be harder to put on a brave face in the corporate world than on the first day of kindergarten, but the same lessons ring true. While countless leaders numb themselves emotionally so they can focus on making logical decisions, no amount of external success will provide the validation you need to overcome imposter syndrome. To make a lasting change, you need to be vulnerable and connected to yourself and your team.