Acting too tough? The value of being vulnerable
Thursday, February 06, 2014
Posted by: Barbara Francella
By Jan C. Hill
it about powerful women leaders that make others want to sabotage, dismiss or
fight against them?
my work with emotional intelligence, particularly the EQ in
Action Profile Assessment, I’ve learned that executive women leaders with a well-developed
emotional quotient may inadvertently create difficulty for themselves by
failing to show their more vulnerable, human sides.
When a woman leader consistently remains calm and forthright under
pressure, revealing no chinks in her armor, others may doubt her motives or, even
worse, work to take her down. While the scenario is true for male leaders too,
I’ve found successful women are more challenged, and more often blindsided, by
this conundrum. After all, many of us have spent years overcoming and
camouflaging our insecurities; it seems counterintuitive to reveal them.
Related: "A CEO asks: Are you negotiating for yourself?"
Elizabeth, an extremely intelligent, well liked, top-performing executive who
suddenly found herself being undermined by an ambitious male peer I’ll call "Bob.”
They were both assigned a "stretch leadership assignment” by the company’s CEO.
Bob seized the opportunity to get closer to the CEO, setting up daily meetings,
telling the CEO what she wanted to hear and showcasing the wins he wanted her
to see. Meanwhile, he was underperforming on work that was his responsibility but
affected Elizabeth’s team due to their reporting structure.
Elizabeth went to
Bob with her concerns, but he repeatedly blew her off, leaving her no choice
but to escalate the issues to her CEO. She was shocked when the CEO, whom she’d
had a successful history with, challenged her poor performance and told
her she shouldn’t make "personal attacks” on Bob. Elizabeth was extremely
frustrated, as she felt she was only citing the facts, nothing personal, but
her CEO had effectively closed the door on her concerns.
the next two months, the CEO confronted Elizabeth on a number of issues, while
bonding with Bob. Elizabeth went to Bob to try to work it out, but he was
elusive and repeatedly cancelled their meetings, while telling the CEO Elizabeth
was cancelling. When Bob sent out an inappropriate email undermining one of Elizabeth’s
star performers, she again went to Bob and the CEO, only to be flummoxed by the
CEO’s dismissal of the event. It was in that meeting, which she described as
"not my finest hour,” that things devolved further. Any attempt on her part to
"set the record straight” only made it look like she had an axe to grind.
Let them see you sweat
face of this adversity, she decided to follow the conventional wisdom of the
day: "leverage your strengths” and "don’t let them see you sweat.” So, she worked harder and showed up stronger in an attempt to
prove them both wrong. Bad call.
mid-1700s, Madame Marie du Deffand, a French hostess and patron of the arts who
was educated in a convent, smartly said: "Women are never stronger than when
they arm themselves with their weaknesses.”
certainly not advocating being an emotional mess all the time. But I do contend
that to be a powerful leader, you need to learn the nuanced art of sharing your
vulnerability strategically. If you come across as too strong all the time,
you’ll either invite resistance or fail to open a door so that others can help
was reluctant to expose how negatively her CEO’s actions had affected her. She didn’t
want to touch that soft underbelly of old pain and past betrayals that made her
feel weak. Ironically, her fortitude only ended up distancing the CEO and her
peer. It wasn’t until she went to her
CEO and humbled herself by asking for coaching and support so that she could
learn from this situation that the CEO opened up and the situation turned
around. This combination of strength and vulnerability can be an amazing
next time you want to arm yourself, consider strategically using your own
vulnerabilities so that you invite others to help you rather than fight you.
Jan C. Hill is CEO of Hill Enterprises Inc., a consulting, coaching and training
company established in 1990. She previously served as a manager with Procter
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