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  • Kathleen Phelps

Leading with Vulnerability

Hillary at conference
The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability… When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility and brings people together, the team wins.”Howard Schultz

At a conference a few months ago, I was able to hear and experience  a number of successful and dynamic speakers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, entrepreneur Tory Burch, author Gail Sheehy, former Cosmopolitan editor Kate White, and more.

On the trip in, I was thinking about a recent engagement where I partnered with a high performing, three-time biotech CEO who had brought his flourishing company public two years earlier. Despite his successes, this CEO wanted to make even more of an impact. Our work together centered on his becoming a more inspiring and charismatic leader.

In their book, Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities that Make Us Influential, authors John Neffinger and Matt Kohut delve into two qualities that make a leader influential: strength – the root of respect, and warmth – the root of affection.

Strength is your capacity to make things happen with skills and willingness, while warmth is the sense that you share the same feelings, interests, and view of the world as the person you’re speaking to.”

The most influential – and inspiring – leaders have mastered the balance.

Often the comfort level of corporate and government leaders is on emphasizing strength. They have reached the top of the ladder by being “the smartest person in the room.” By knowing their stuff. By being competent experts.

And yet, what do their followers crave? They want to know that their leaders are like them. That they don’t always have it all figured out. That they worry. That sometimes, they too, are afraid.

Former Secretary Clinton spoke powerfully from the stage at the Mass Conference for Women. She dove into the national debate on race and the criminal justice system. She delivered a call to action, and certainly sounded like someone running for office.

Though she showed strength behind the podium, I did not feel connected to her. However, when the former Secretary sat down to be interviewed by one of the conference organizers, her tone and the room’s vibe shifted markedly. She became a real person – not a political caricature – as she talked about her granddaughter.

In contrast, Lupita Nyong’o “had us at hello.” She told us that speaking at the conference seemed like a great idea when she committed to it, but that she became nervous as the date neared. She also shared her early fears of failure, and her more recent fear of success. A far less practiced and experienced public speaker, Lupita was moving and inspiring. We saw ourselves in her.

Back to my client, the biotech CEO. By revealing himself, he was able to move the dial farther than he ever thought possible. He admitted that he didn’t have all of the answers all of the time.

At a company-wide meeting, this always professional and buttoned-up leader shared a goofy picture of himself at a theme park with his family, and spoke aloud the self-conscious thoughts in his head. It was the highest rated meeting in the company’s history.

Where can you show your strength today by being more vulnerable? By saying what scares you? By letting people in?

You will feel great. And your people will love you. I promise.


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