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Acting too tough? The value of being vulnerable

woman with hands crossed

What is it about powerful women leaders that make others want to sabotage, dismiss or fight against them?

Through 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.

Consider 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.

Over 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 

In the 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.

In the 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.”

I’m 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 you.

Elizabeth 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 leadership trait.

The 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. The former Procter & Gamble executive has appeared at several NEW events.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.