Letting Your Guard Down

I never saw my father cry. Not at my brother’s wedding, our cousin’s funeral or my college graduation. It may have been his buttoned up Teutonic heritage, or former training in the army, but one thing is certain, Dad wasn’t very open with his emotions. Whenever I’d ask him about his feelings, his facial muscles would twitch and he’d fob me off with a “better go ask your mother.”

Being vulnerable is difficult, especially for men who are sometimes trained from a young age to equate it with weakness. “Big boys don’t cry.” We are frightened that if we reveal too much of our interior landscape, that others may exploit it, or think less of us. But paradoxically, it is at our most vulnerable that we are often most powerful.

This week I had a conversation with a client who is struggling to keep his job. Andy, a senior managing director, could easily pass for a twin brother of tough guy Tony Soprano. A big burly trader, he is usually a man of few words during our coaching sessions. But this time, our discussion was altogether different. Feeling stuck and worried about his professional situation, his eyes welled up as he shared his recent professional failures with me.

Due to a number of “mistakes” he had made over the previous months, the CEO told Andy that his position was in jeopardy. All week long, Andy had been blaming others at the office in order to deflect attention from himself, all the while deeply knowing that he is responsible. It wasn’t easy for him to confess his feelings of ineptness to me and yet, he confided afterwards how cathartic it felt to talk (and cry) it out. Walking around projecting an image of “strength” and “togetherness” was, he said, way more exhausting than his actual job.

Many of us are taught to believe that we will only win the respect and admiration of our peers by exhibiting our all-knowing competencies. But true admiration can never be coerced, or bought or legislated for. The history books are littered with fallen empires and powerful autocratic dictators, brought down by their own hubris. What good leaders eventually come to realize, especially in today’s turbulent economy, is that true loyalty and respect is about opening yourself up to a conversation where you invite people in – tell them the truth, and find the common ground necessary to do great things together. Keep yourself guarded, and others will respond in kind, which severely hinders the way of progress and the possibility of any meaningful collaboration.

One of the challenges for Andy has been having the courage to say, “I don’t know” or “what do you think?” Like him, we can strive so hard to appear “in charge”, that we actively disinvite open participation and new ideas, surrounding ourselves instead with “Yes Men.” (See Michael Scott in The Office for the absurdist comedy version of this.) But what really great leaders know is that when you act authentically and show respect for those with whom you work, they will often be moved to contribute ideas and do their best work.

Similarly in a personal relationship, allowing yourself to be transparent is the fuel that propels it forward, and ultimately decides whether that relationship will grow or not. The more we try to make ourselves “powerful” – by projecting confidence – the less likely is the possibility of a genuine connection. No relationship founded solely on power, no matter how well shared, can ever survive the tiny shifts in balance that inevitably occur over time. Real intimacy – the lasting kind – is based on mutual vulnerability.

Letting others into your “emotional space” is about being so open that you become capable of being hurt, though being hurt is not necessarily a guarantee. In fact, I find that most of the time, people’s stories lead to the opposite of pain and rejection. Most are touched by our willingness to open up the door for them to share their vulnerabilities as well. A couple of months ago, I shared the difficulty of my mother’s passing in a newsletter I called Scar Tissue, and the response to that post blew me away. I was overwhelmed by the flood of support and kind emails I got from friends and strangers alike. That wasn’t my intention of course, but it was the result of a shared openness.

Learning to love your weakness as much as you revel in your strength requires courage. But the potential rewards far outweigh the risk. So go ahead and have that conversation that you’ve been meaning to have. Invite people in. Nothing is as imprisoning as perfection, and nothing as courageous as the will to truly be yourself.