Leadership Strength and Vulnerability

My first boss was a military man. He had grown up in a proud military family, some of whom had served in the Confederacy during the Civil War. When duty called, my boss shipped off to Southeast Asia where he served two tours of duty behind enemy lines in Vietnam. Later he served as the head of the ROTC program at a major southern university.

I was scared of my boss. At least at first. He was tough, quiet, and intense. He walked with an iron-rod posture, talked in a concise and clipped manner, and could stare right through you when he was upset. He was also a strict Southern Baptist who held a black belt in karate. I worked for a boss who could literally kill me with his bare hands if he wanted to and believed that God would be on his side if he did.

The role of leader is an important one. A leader has to be conscious of the impression he or she is making. First and foremost a leader has to be a positive role model of integrity. But there is a balance that has to be struck; people don’t want to be led by a leader who is performing in a role all the time. We want a leader to uphold ideals and values, but we also want a leader to be real. I knew and respected my boss as a leader, but I had no idea who he was underneath the role.

Then one day my boss and I set out on a two-hour drive up to the mountains of North Georgia. We were setting out to lead a three-day leadership-development program for a Fortune 500 company. For the first time, we would be facilitating together. Given my boss’s deep leadership experience, I was thrilled at the prospect of working closely with him. But it still bugged me that I didn’t have any sense of who he was behind his rigid exterior. As he turned the ignition key, he turned to me and said, “Would you mind if I put on a little music for the drive?” Thinking that I was about to get a two-hour dose of old-timey gospel music, I answered unenthusiastically, “Fine with me.”

Out of the car speakers, to my pleasant surprise, came the screeching guitar notes of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s famous Vietnam War anthem “Run through the Jungle.” For the next two hours, with John Fogerty singing in the background, my boss talked about his days on the battlefield fighting the Viet Cong. He opened up to me, sharing stories about what it was like to be a member of the Special Forces. He talked about what leadership meant to him and how his Vietnam experience had influenced and shaped his ideas about leadership. He talked about what it felt like to be responsible for people’s lives, not in some abstract way, but literally. He talked about the strong bonds that would form when he and his teammates faced firefights together, and how the pain would linger for weeks after a teammate was killed. The more we talked, the more open he got, and the more real my boss became to me.

Leadership requires strength. It also requires vulnerability. Sometimes the most important thing a leader can do to strengthen the relationship with the people he or she is leading is to momentarily step out of the role of leader. When people are given a glimpse of the man or women underneath leadership’s mask, they become more committed to the leader when the mask goes back on. In my case, all it took was a two-hour car ride, some personal stories, and some rock-n-roll music to deepen my loyalty to my boss.

Here are a few actions that strong leaders can take to show who they really are:

  • Get out of your office. Don’t cloister. Walk the halls. Dedicate at least one hour a day to not looking at a screen of any sort.
  • Smile more. People won’t approach you if you’re a perpetual grump.
  • Set up and post a LinkedIn profile so people can view your educational background and career history if they want to.
  • Display a few pictures from your outside-of-work life and/or your family.
  • If your company sponsors a softball league (etc.) or folks get together for trivia night (etc.), join in the fun. Participating in casual activities should help defrost you.
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