Leading a company that produced large events for a solid decade means I’ve spent a lot of time in green rooms with “important” people. They are often places where everyone talks about books they’ve written, companies they’ve launched, money they’ve raised, and awards they’ve received. They keep others at arm’s length, and work hard to create the aura of success. (There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but the trend indicates that I’m not the only leader who struggles with openness.)
Leaders can easily forget that people follow them, in large part, because of who they are. So you should own it. Yet, the higher one climbs the ladder of influence and power, the more difficult it is to be open. Ladder climbing typically leads to power tripping, which leads to a loss of influence..
A sabbatical forced me to get real: I was not as good a leader as I thought I was. I was stale, stressed, strained, drained. And my failure to remain healthy was hurting those closest to me.
In the last couple of years, I have begun working to nurture openness in my life. I found that several practices were especially helpful to me and are shared by many influencers I respect. I suggest that you do these too.
- Perform an isolation evaluation. Every leader runs the risk of quarantining himself or herself in an ivory tower. Evaluate your own level of isolation by surveying the number and quality of relational connections in your life. Ask those close to you, “Do you think I am connected or isolated?” Lone Ranger leaders are destined for trouble. Even the actual cowboy character had Tonto.
- Decide to make deeper connections. Achieving depth in one’s relationship is something that springs from a choice. It is a bit like deciding to ride a roller coaster even though one is afraid of heights. The cost is counted, the decision is made, and each subsequent choice becomes easier than the last. Challenge yourself to disclose personal information about yourself or ask serious questions during conversations with others. Relational depth often emerges from intentional dialogue.
- Answer the dreaded questions. Skilled leaders are often skilled communicators, and skilled communicators know how to dodge a question. But part of sharing the real you is just allowing the real you to be known, and this comes through responding to honest inquiries from others around you. Don’t resist when people try to pry open the lid on your life’s box. When someone asks a dreaded question you’d rather not answer, don’t give in to the temptation to avoid it. Pause before responding, and if you can trust the person with the information, share honestly.
- Invest heavily in long-term friendships. Influencers, particularly extroverts and connectors, are always making new “friends.” The tendency can be to invest up to a point in a set of individuals and then move on. You naturally share less of yourself with new friends. So leaders can end up answering the same questions and telling the same stories over and over without penetrating the surface of who they are. Is your closest friend group in a constant state of turnover? If so, you probably need to work on your level of personal openness.
- Learn to say, “Sorry.” Often we become most real when we become most remorseful. Take time to apologize to those you’ve wronged or hurt. Set a day on your calendar each month when you send handwritten cards or e-mails to all the people you were a jerk to or need to offer an olive branch. You’ll find that apologies can become soil where self-disclosure grows most easily.
- Find a confidant. Every leader I know needs a confidant. Not someone on your team who reports to you or is a peer, or even your boss. Choose someone you can rely on, share with, lean into for tough decisions, and receive counsel from, a trusted adviser.
- Establish a habit of confession, one of vulnerability and transparency, not concealing. A habit of confession brings things into the light. Confession leads to mercy and healing. As the leader, you must go first in terms of confession and authenticity. Authenticity flows from the top down, not the bottom up.
Embrace who you are, and even as you work to refine and improve that person, learn to share yourself with those around you. A habit of openness will help you feel freer and lead more effectively.