Why leaders fail at creating meaningful connections 12_10_13
The fil rouge at the 2012 ICF Global Conference: the ability to reveal one’s vulnerability to self and others holds the key to effective relationships hence leadership.
From October 4th to 6th nine hundred coaches from 55 countries met in London for the 2012 ICF Global Coaching Conference. In all the sessions I attended there was a thin yet resistant fil rouge: connections are possible only when we drop the shields we created to protect our vulnerability.
In the session that Nadjeschda Taranzcewski and I held on the opening day of the conference we introduced the concept of the different Selves we build and reinforce in life in order to protect our vulnerability. When we are born, while we have the potential to access and express any quality, value, behavior, emotion that are part of the human experience, we only develop a few of them that becomes our “operating system”. Each of these becomes a sub-personality and each has a goal: they are born to protect our vulnerability. They are our survival strategies.
When we are born we are completely vulnerable and dependent on others. We need love, attention and safety to survive. We start experimenting behaviors that can ensure we get our physical and psychological survival needs met. Depending on the families and the parent’s expectations, we may discover that laughter and seeking physical contact will be rewarding, or that crying will get the attention of others.
While growing up, we develop all the behaviors that will ensure rewards (love, attention) and we disown or repress all those that we know can be punished, ridiculed, o ignored. This process continues and refines during all our lives to the point that we lose access to our vulnerability and the idea of revealing it is unbearable, terrifying.
We can give names to those sub-personalities or Selves: in my childhood, for example, I developed some parts of me that I call the “Achiever” and the “Entertainer” that were instrumental for my success in my professional life but overtime became a prison and prevented me from having true, deep connections with others. All these parts of us or Selves are useful but they become our unconscious automatic pilot, restricting our choices and the possibility to respond to life circumstances in a more effective way.
In another session of the conference, Dorothy Siminovitch, Ph.D., talked about how the leaders’ conception of success is influenced by their responses to global phenomena of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Those forces provoke discordant leaders dynamics, particularly the “Shadow Syndromes” of the “Hero” (the narcissist) and the “Perfectionist” (the controller).
Professor Brenée Brown, one of the conference Keynote speaker and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work is an expert of vulnerability. She researched shame, authenticity, courage and vulnerability for 10 years. She says that we are hardwired to connect with others, it is what gives meaning to our lives, but the majority of the participants of her research on connections spoke about betrayal and shame and the fear of not being worth of real connections. The fear of being vulnerable is what prevents true connections.
Brenée says that vulnerability and shame are deeply human emotions but the expectations that drive shame are organised by gender. For women it’s “Do it all, do it perfectly and never look as if you’re working very hard”. And for men it’s “Don’t be perceived as weak”. Coming back to my previous sharing about the Selves that we develop, we can say that women are led by a group of Selves called “Perfectionist”, “Pusher”, and “Controller”, while men are mostly led by the “Warrior”, the “Powerful”, the “I-can-take-it-all”.
When I think of the corporate leaders in their professional settings, with the pressure they live with and the need to perform to survive the rat-race, with few exceptions they stick to their Selves as shields to protect their vulnerability, their fear of not being worthy whatever it means for men and women.
Accessing and revealing our vulnerability is the key to building trust and connections, and is one of the qualities that allow leaders to be authentic. But in the corporate setting leaders still associate being vulnerable with weakness. Instead the greatest leaders influence and impact others through their authenticity and their courage, not their power or status. Vulnerable leaders are able to take in feedback graciously instead of avoiding it for the fear to feel hurt. They are in contact with their sadness as well as their enthusiasm and this opens up to greater empathy with their collaborators’ struggles. Vulnerable leaders create trust because they reveal themselves for what they truly are, they don’t need to wear masks or play games in order to gain respect and authority. There is a sense of congruence in all what they think, say, feel, do.
I experienced revealing my vulnerability in my professional life, even during Board meetings, and people came to me to express their respect and appreciation for the courage it took to stand with my authenticity and accepting to be hurt. It was not felt as weakness but as boldness and as an expression of self-worth.
In Brenée Brown words: “Our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted. It means engaging with the world from a place of vulnerability and worthiness. It’s about being all in, saying, ‘I’m here and I’m going to love you fully and if you cheat on me you’re going to devastate me and break my heart, but I’m not holding back because this is short.’”