One of the things I enjoy most as a leadership speaker is when people challenge my thinking or ask for an opinion that stretches my perspective. This is how I learn and grow as a teacher, and as a person. Last night I did a webinar for an amazing group called NAWIC: The National Association of Women in Construction. I’ve presented at their annual conference and chapter meetings and I’ve gotten to know several members quite well. This is an amazing group dedicated to developing women leaders in all phases of the construction industry from small contractors and trades to corporate management, engineering, architecture and other aspects of the industry. One of the participants shared a communication challenge she was experiencing––communication was the focus of this webinar. She said that it was sometimes difficult to be transparent with male colleagues. That sometimes she would reveal more feeling than she thought they’d be comfortable with––or that they may perceive the sharing of feelings as a sign of weakness.
Sharing your feelings can be a strength––instead of a weakness!
And if we assume for the sake of argument that women are more open about sharing feelings, then men can learn a lot from them! The trick is make sure we're sharing feelings deliberately, in a way that does not compromise our effectiveness as leaders. Back to the challenge…
I found it challenging to respond for two reasons:
First––I am not a woman. I often work with groups where I would be considered an “outsider.” I’ve experienced this also when working with law enforcement and military personnel––and with people who are incarcerated. Not being of “their world,” I feel the need to be very respectful of the fact that as much as I try, I cannot fully share their specific experience. The best I can do is empathize. Because I’m not a woman, I cannot honestly say I know exactly how it feels to be woman in this particular situation. But I do have feelings! And despite the bad press, most men do. The tough part is that you’re often not aware of a man’s feelings––until you hurt them! This issue came up because of my emphasis on “transparency” as an essential quality of a leader’s communication. Let’s define this quickly–– Transparency means not keeping secrets. It means that whenever possible you are open about what’s happening in the organization and you solicit input from stakeholders and even those affected on the periphery. This is essential for a couple of reasons… First of all, if you want people to trust you as a leader, one of the worst things you can do is keep them in the dark. If people start to feel you don’t trust them with important information, they’re not going to share important information with you. And that leads to the second reason transparency is so essential… Great solutions and innovations very often come from the front lines! The people most immediately engaged in the fundamental processes of your organization, whether that’s creating a great product or delivering a great service, possess most of the “intellectual capital” in your organization.
They know how to get the job done.
They know the immediate needs and desires of your clients and customers.
They are most directly impacted by problems and inefficiencies and can very often see the best way to solve them.
But what about those “feelings?” There’s nothing wrong with sharing your feelings when you care passionately about what you’re doing. At the same time, a leader is constantly doing a balancing act between transparency and still projecting confidence, courage and competency. Again I feel compelled to share my disclaimer––I’m not a woman. I won’t presume to know exactly how you feel in this situation. But as I said before––men have feelings too. And whether we admit or not, most of us go through the same struggle when we think we might be too exposed when sharing those feelings.
We worry that showing feelings or emotions will be considered a sign of weakness, fear or incompetence.
We worry that others will lose confidence in our ability to lead.
We worry that we are not acting like a leader when we display too much emotion.
You may not be completely comfortable sharing your feelings, but consider the the opposite––a leader who never exposes his or her feelings. A leader who practices secrecy rather than transparency. One who is never comfortable expressing his or her thoughts and feelings openly with anyone––especially those “below” his or her station. We usually call that type of leader an “authoritarian.” In extreme cases, that person is no longer a leader, but rather becomes a dictator. Martial arts and Eastern philosophy taught me many valuable lessons. One of the best is this… You cannot control emotions––you simply have emotions. What you can control is your response. So the issue isn’t whether or not you have feelings. If you care, you do. At the same time, nobody respects a leader who is always crying, moaning and wailing––right? The real issue is not whether it’s appropriate to share your feelings––but how you do it. That brings us back to the art of communication. Here are few quick tips to help you share your feelings in a positive way while still projecting yourself as a leader:
Avoid outbursts. When feelings are immediate and intense, train yourself to take a step back, take a breath and think.
Make sure its not personal––to the other person. The way you express your feelings may have a great impact on the person in front of you. Express your feelings in such a way that you show that you care about the task at hand, the problem and even the person involved––when appropriate.
Solicit feedback. If you’re constantly uncomfortable with the way you’re expressing yourself, find someone you trust and ask them how you’re being perceived. Ask for suggestions, look for information on how to communicate more rationally or effectively and try again. Repeat.
Forgive yourself. We all do things we wish we could take back. If you do think you’ve revealed too much or lost control of your emotions––welcome to the club. Any honest, self-aware person would admit the same from time to time. Let it go––forgive yourself––correct and grow.
Let me leave you with a beautiful quote by the poet and humanitarian Samuel Ullman. Read it once as is––then substitute “leadership” in place of the word “maturity.” Works pretty well! “Maturity is the ability to think, speak and act your feelings within the bounds of dignity. The measure of your maturity is how spiritual you become during the midst of your frustrations.”
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