Tough Leadership Conversations, Vulnerability and how Spanx Founder, Sara Blakely uses Humour to create Connection during Turbulent Times!

Connection during challenging times has never been more important. Some Leaders have struggled with the concept that to do this meant leaning into leadership and showing a little vulnerability.

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Business Owner struggling to share with difficult news during a crisis

It’s been one hell of a year for tough leadership conversations! No surprises there!

I’ve listened to numerous stories of angst, pain and challenges where leaders have struggled to find the words to share difficult news or engage with their teams on a new and distinctly uncomfortable level.

And one of the most common reasons for this discomfort has been the fear of leading with vulnerability.  Of showing a fragile and wavering side to their usual stoic and resilient exterior. Of shedding their armour plating and showing something of themselves that felt distinctly unfamiliar. Emotion, uncertainty and doubt.

During difficult times, you may be guiding your teams through turbulent waters, sailing through unknown and unchartered territory.  Yet just because you are Captain of your ship doesn’t mean you have all the answers all the time, particularly during a crisis.  And this is where some come unstuck.  Perhaps you believe your teams will lose faith in your leadership skills and you will lose credibility in their eyes.

It may be a hard realization that you simply can’t provide information or solutions at the moment or know what lies ahead.  However it’s actually ok to say as much!  To be honest.  In a way, it’s also quite liberating.

And crazy as it may sound, it can be a really positive way to engage with your teams, create trust and connection and ironically build confidence. And here’s why.

What Draws us to Disengage?

Have you ever met someone at a networking event and instantly sensed something was off with their communication. It might have been hard to identify but your instinct was telling you this person was not showing up authentically.

What was your immediate visceral reaction? Were you drawn into the conversation or did you disengage, switch off, looking for an opportunity to make a quick getaway?

Let’s assume for a moment that this person was nervous at these social gatherings. If they had shared this from the get go, would you feel differently and be more inclined to engage in a conversation?   

Well here’s a head’s up! It is humility, honesty and authenticity that creates a pipeline for connection rather than a barrier to communication.

Courage and vulnerability are hard and uncomfortable, but it lures us in rather than pushes us away. As humans we are drawn to ‘real’ and when we sense otherwise, we disconnect and disengage.

Real and Imperfect is very Alluring!

Some of you may know Sara Blakely, founder and inventor of the billion dollar business Spanx. She is a hoot!  During the first lockdown here in the UK, I found myself aimlessly scrolling through Instagram one day and stumbled across some of her posts.  I was hooked.  Why? They were comical, authentic, honest and depicted her real ‘upside down’ family life on this social media platform.  Apart from the fact that she is a born entertainer and a hilarious raconteur, what is so enticing to watch is this.  To many, she appears to have the perfect ‘shiny’ life and family.  Yet she isn’t afraid to share the many trials and tribulations she experiences just like the rest of us in our day to day drudgery.  In one of her many entertaining posts, she left the house , juggling 4 children under the age of 7, unintentionally wearing mismatched shoes! It was very funny!  Did we respect her brilliant business acumen any less because of it?  Absolutely not.  In fact the opposite.  We loved her more because of it.  It was very endearing and engaging.

The point is this.  She illustrated that it’s ok not to be perfect and to struggle and your reputation will not be tarnished because of it.

What Communication Lessons have Leaders Learned During this Past Year?

Despite the challenges this global crisis has posed, many leaders have created stronger bonds with their teams as they immersed themselves in the human side of leadership.

For some it meant taking risks not just with the business but with their leadership style.

It meant thinking outside the box, injecting a bit of humour and fun into challenging conversations and as Brené Brown would advocate… Daring to lead!

One message I conveyed time and again to Senior Leaders and Business Owners was this.  Just because the content of the conversation might be tough,  doesn’t mean you have to show up ‘Teflon tough’ too! And despite the myth that vulnerability is the same as weakness, being less guarded in your communication style will help you break down barriers with your teams and create stronger bonds and greater connection.  It will instill confidence, trust and engagement.

So perhaps now is the time to drop the ‘Teflon Tough’ during challenging conversations, and when we emerge from this battlefield, the risk of displaying a little vulnerability will reap huge rewards, creating lasting loyalty, support and collaboration from your teams.

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