The Power of Vulnerability

As an advocate for the underserved in her community, Gloria is recognized as a true leader. She’s smart, resourceful and has a commanding presence. She is unafraid to challenge injustice wherever she sees it, standing up to any person or process that she feels is harming others. Because of her courage, others have come to rely on her to take the difficult stands that they themselves are afraid to take. Tough and courageous, Gloria is a shining example of the grit-based leadership style at its best.

And yet…

Gloria was starting to experience the limitations of her style. When she was forceful, the world often responded to her with force, which took its toll on her. The more others relied on her courage, the more she enabled them to avoid their own. After years of experiencing the gifts of grit, Gloria started to experience the perils of over investing that style.  She came to me for coaching, and we worked to help her integrate more grace into her native grit style.

Now, it is often when she calls upon her ‘grace’ side that Gloria is most powerful as a leader. I recently observed her in a community forum, where the discussion was heating up, yet going nowhere. I could see people giving her ‘the look,’ their silent visual request for her to challenge what was happening. And, as she so often does, she stepped up. But this time, her challenge came in the form of vulnerability. Rather than calling people out, Gloria just stood up and quietly told her own truth. “As the conversation is going on,” she said, “I am finding myself more and more exhausted.” In that instant of speaking from the heart, Gloria changed the room. Simply by describing her own personal experience, she seemed to give voice to that of the whole group, and people visibly relaxed in recognition.  Soon thereafter, someone spoke up and said, “That’s how I feel, too. I don’t think this is getting us where we want to go. Let’s change the focus and the structure of the conversation.” From that moment on, the group adjusted into a much more productive mode.

For Gloria, it was a much greater risk to be vulnerable than to challenge others; it was a much more personal move. And yet, from where I sat, it was the most potent and effective action she could have taken. Had she stood up and done her normal ‘grit thing,’ she probably would have just amped up the unproductive intensity in the room. But by honestly reporting on her own internal experience, she caused a profoundly effective shift.

When we think about leadership, we tend to think about its more assertive and forceful aspects. But vulnerability has every bit as much power as force to transform. Maybe more.

What about you?

How do you related to the concept of vulnerability as a form of power?  Do you embrace it?  Resist it?  Both?
How do you think others relate to your vulnerability?  What impact does that have on your willingness to make yourself vulnerable to others – especially when you are leading or influencing others?
Can you think of a recent or important situation in which being forceful worked against your effectiveness?
What might a more vulnerable response have looked like in that situation?
Where might you want to be more vulnerable in your work life or personal life?  What steps can you take to do that?


The Four Pillars of True Power

Last year, a company hired me to present “Leading With Grit & Grace” to its senior women executives. When the sponsor asked me to describe the content of the presentation, I said, “It’s about how women can wield their power and influence more effectively.”  Their response?  “Whatever you do, don’t mention the word power in your presentation!

This client was giving voice to a common discomfort with the notion of power in our culture.  Women seem especially wary of it, as if power is something that we shouldn’t claim or own. I think the reason we resist owning – or even talking about – power is because of how we define it. Most of us think of power as an oppressive and constraining force, a tool of domination. And unfortunately, our past and present are riddled with examples of power used in this way.  So these are legitimate concerns.

But because we resist this ‘brute force’ aspect of power, we tend to send the whole topic underground, burying with it all of power’s positive potential.  As we dissociate from the more coercive aspects of power, we also disown our ability to unite and mobilize others for productive and compassionate ends. This positive, connective force is what Joe Weston, author of Respectful Confrontation, calls “true power.” Weston contends that true power is supported by four pillars of internal capacity: grounding, strength, focus, and flexibility.

Pillar 1: Grounding. Our personal power is not unlike electrical current. Ground it, and it’s productive and safe. But when ungrounded, it has the potential to do real harm, so true power has to begin there. It’s the establishment of a strong physical, spiritual, mental and emotional foundation from which to encounter life.  Grounding keeps us rooted in our bodies, beliefs and principles, and thus stable in the face of challenge.  According to Weston, “Grounding…leads to an unwavering self-confidence and conviction in what you do and believe.”

Pillar 2: Focus. According to Weston, there are two aspects to focus: “finding stillness in the chaos” and “giving direction to one’s efforts.”  Focus brings a calm, clear quality to your power.  It enables you to sort through all that’s happening in and around you, and make a clear choice about what to bring forward.  Focus concentrates your energy, enabling you to act and speak with intent and precision.  To focus is to take a definite shape, something that can be uncomfortable for women.  To help us move into that discomfort, we need the next pillar: strength.

Pillar 3: Strength. This is the aspect we usually associate with power, and without the other pillars, it can turn into the kind of brute force that we rightly resist. Here’s how Joe Weston describes strength: “The innate force of strength is expressed in two ways.  The first is the courage to move out of your safe space and into the unknown, and the second is the physical force to accomplish your goals.” Strength is often a real skill of grit-based leaders.  But when strength is not accompanied by grounding or flexibility, it can turn a woman from bold to bitchy.

Pillar 4: Flexibility. Weston believes that flexibility is the most elusive, challenging, yet potent of all the pillars.  He sums it up in a Taoist saying: “In a heavy monsoon, the mighty oak will snap like a twig, but the blade of grass will survive.”  Flexibility is the key to versatility, creativity and compassion.  This is often a strong pillar for grace-based leaders, yet they will tell you that flexibility without the support of other pillars can result in weakness.  A leader who is grounded, clear and strong – while also able to adapt and adjust – is a force to be reckoned with.

What about you?

Each of these four pillars is essential to ‘true power,’ but the real potential lies in achieving balance in all four.  Which of these pillars are most developed in you?  What do those strengths make possible for you and others?  What happens when you overuse those pillars to the neglect of the others?

Which of these pillars is least developed in you?  What impact does that have in your ability to express ‘true power?’  How will strengthening that pillar help you to accomplish something that really matters to you?

What one or two steps can you take right now to get started?



To find out more about Joe Weston’s work, go to


Mountain or Spear? The difference between assertiveness and aggression

“The minute I express my opinion clearly, I get labeled as aggressive.”  This may be the most recurrent refrain I hear from the women leaders I coach.  They report that if they hold back or are soft-spoken, they get run over in conversations.  Yet if they come forward with strength, they get tattooed with what I call the “Scarlet B:” the reputation as a bitch (excuse the French).

There’s no doubt that organizations tolerate more forcefulness from men than from women, so women often have to operate in a much narrower stylistic swath.  At the same time, something has nagged at me about these clients’  stories.  In each of their organizations, I can name other women leaders who are successful and influential who have escaped the “aggressive” label.  And many of the women that I’ve coached do, indeed, have quite a sharp edge.  So while I fully acknowledge that organizations are often intolerant of strength in women, I don’t believe that it’s impossible for a woman to be both strong and avoid the Scarlet B tattoo.

The issue is not whether you’re coming across with strength – it’s rather the kind of strength you’re coming across with. There is an important distinction between assertiveness and aggression.  The word “assertive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to join,”  while “aggressive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to attack.”  Assertion stands its ground, like a mountain or tree.  It has a full and present quality that is based on your intention to make real contact with yourself and others.  Aggressiveness, on the other hand, has a forward-leaning, ‘coming at’ quality, and often reflects a loss of interrelatedness.  In women, there can be a sharpness or shrillness to the voice that often belies an underlying energy of anger, frustration, powerlessness or fear.  If left unmanaged or ungrounded, those emotions can give our communication a spear-like quality.

Unfortunately, because organizations tolerate more spears from men than from women, women need to take extra care that their communications are balanced and effective.  The bad news is that women carry an extra burden to be skillful in their communication.  But the good news is that that forces us into a style that research has proven to be most effective for leaders in general, regardless of gender.

What about you?

Recall an interaction in which someone told you that you came across as aggressive or “too strong.”   What were the circumstances surrounding that interaction?

What message were you trying to get across?  What qualities did your communication have?  (If you were watching yourself on videotape in that interaction, what do you think you would have observed about yourself?)

Now recall the emotions you were feeling in that interaction.  What were they?  Defensive, scared, angry…?  Were you aware of them at the time?  How did those emotions shape what you said and how you said it? Were there spear-like qualities to it?

Where was your attention when you were speaking?  Was it more on connecting to yourself and the other person?  Or was it more on getting your point across or being heard?

Now imagine yourself as a mountain, or as some other image that is both solid in itself and open to its surroundings.   How would that mountain (or other image that works for you) communicate that same message you were trying to convey?

What’s different about how the mountain would express itself from how you actually communicated in the situation?

What’s your sense of how others would perceive the two messages with respect to assertiveness vs. aggression?

What new awareness or understanding do you have as a result of this exercise?  What actions might you take as a result of these insights?



Modeling ourselves after men continues not to work

Apparently, I grew up in Corporate America.  I was one of two children. My older brother received most of the parenting – he got much more guidance than I did on who to be and how to succeed. He received much more corrective feedback (for better and worse) than I did. I think my parents saw him as having greater potential than I and thus invested more heavily in him. Naturally, I wanted to be successful in my parents’ eyes. So I adopted the only guidance available – that which they gave my brother. I became all the things they wanted him to be: driven, achievement-oriented, competitive, sports-oriented and vocal.

Big mistake.  An old family friend once confided in me.  “Leslie, your parents always said that you weren’t the girl they wished you’d become. They always thought you were too tough and forthright.”  But they had neglected to give me any input on how to succeed in their eyes as a girl.  I had given up a lot of myself (maybe the best of myself) to conform to a male image of success, and it backfired.  A long, hard slog to nowhere. Sound familiar?

The dynamic that existed in my family continues to exist in organizations today. In the absence of skilled and explicit feedback, women still model their behavior after men in order to succeed.  And it continues to backfire: not because women can’t do male behavior, but because it’s not what organizations want or expect from women.  Like it or not.

One of the current truisms in corporate life is that women are paid less than men because they don’t negotiate as well as men.  So the follow-on conclusion is that women need to negotiate more aggressively for promotions and pay increases, because that’s what works (for men).

God bless research. Catalyst, one of the premier research organizations on women in the workplace, has found that, in fact, women DO ask and negotiate for what they want – and that it has little positive effect on their careers.  In their recent book, The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead? Catalyst discovered that men tend to be rewarded for perceived potential (just as my brother – and probably your brother – was). So men’s career success comes from changing organizations often and negotiating hard at each move. What seems to get women ahead is proven performance. So the key to women’s success (using promotion and pay as metrics) seems to be staying with an employer, accumulating achievements, and letting those achievements be known.  Proactive negotiation had very little positive impact on women’s success, just as the broadcasting of achievements had little impact on men’s success.

Myth by busted myth, we continue to learn that women’s path to success is different from men’s.  We can rail against it or we can embrace it.  Does it make me mad that the rules are different for men and women?  Yes.  Do I fear that ‘different’ expectations can too easily equate to lower expectations?  Yes.  But I think there is also tremendous hope in these findings.  They invite women to shed a male model of success and claim their own path.  At the same time, these findings also invite organizations to examine their different ways of relating to men and women and to root out conscious and unconscious inequities.

Can simple math improve your confidence?

Here’s a great HBR article on women and confidence.  Who knew that ’rounding up’ holds a key?

Is the conversation about ‘male’ and ‘female’ leadership still useful?

I recently read an article in the Washington Post called “What Men Can Learn From Women About Leadership.”  Its central premise is that male leaders could stand to learn a thing or two from their female counterparts.  While this premise seems true to me, I’m wondering how useful it is.

Here’s the problem I keep encountering.  Once we put issues of leadership style into the gender frame, the conversation goes awry.  The conversation about male and female leadership might be productive if we knew how to have it in a productive way. But from what I can tell, focusing on the differences between male and female leadership behavior – even if those differences are statistically borne out – seems to have more downsides than up.  First, it feeds an ‘us-vs.-them’ mindset that diverts us from more pressing questions of contemporary leadership.  In addition, as gender roles and expectations evolve, more and more women are operating in a stereotypically ‘male’ fashion. Likewise, more men are leading with styles that are stereotypically ‘female.’  Thus, theoretical generalizations about gender quickly collapse under practical scrutiny. Last, at least among the leaders I coach, neither gender particularly aspires to become more like the other.  So why keep making the argument that male leaders should learn from women if it does not motivate them to do so?

The quest for greater effectiveness is what compels my clients to do the hard work of personal change. I have helped many hard-driving, demanding leaders of both genders to integrate more collaboration and compassion into their leadership style. They didn’t do this work because they aspired to be more like women; they did it to become more effective.  I have also helped many collaborative, compassionate men and women to lead more firmly and assertively. They, too, were motivated not by the desire to adopt a more ‘male’ style, but by the promise of more  leadership potency.

In other words, for many leaders, greater effectiveness lies not in becoming more like a man or woman, but rather in achieving a better balance between assertiveness and receptivity. I find that focusing on the qualities themselves, vs. on the gender of who supposedly brings those qualities, is a more accurate and useful frame for the developmental work that my clients are doing.

As long as we remain fixated on ‘men do X’ and ‘women do Y,’  we’ll continue to be be distracted from the very issue that the male/female conversation is intended to surface: How do leaders skillfully balance the forces of achievement and relatedness, so that our organizations are healthier, our global society is more just, and our planet survives?


Do you ‘claim your space’ as a leader?

Here’s a test.  Recall the last time you were in a crowded elevator, plane, bus or sidewalk. When other people pushed up against you, how did you respond physically? Did you crunch yourself up to make room for others, or did you stand your ground and cause others to adjust to you? The body is not just a metaphor here – it is one mirror of how adaptable or assertive you are to others. This quick reflection may give you some important insight into how you lead.

A core function of leadership is to shape the environment – to affect the activities, priorities, and energies of those around you.   This requires you to “claim your space:” to exert a strong enough presence to cause a shift in others.  But before you can do that externally, you must do it within.

Recently, a leader was lamenting to me that her assistant was not performing up to standard. The assistant was often absent on questionable bouts of sick leave and refused to take training because she ‘really wasn’t interested’ in learning about spreadsheets.   As a result, the assistant created tremendous inefficiencies and extra work for everyone around her.  The leader’s response?  “I feel bad for my assistant because she’s the underdog (because she’s at a lower grade level).”  My response to this leader?  “Actually, it sounds like you’re the underdog in this relationship.  Your assistant appears to be the one in charge.”

This is a well-intentioned, caring leader who has not been claiming her space.   She is, at some level, apologetic about her power.  She demonstrates what can happen when a leader overuses kindness and adaptability.   She has become largely impotent – to the detriment of herself, her team and bottom-line results.

Practices for claiming your space

Claiming your space is a ‘learnable’ skill.  Here are a few exercises that can get you started.

“Filling your skin.”  Three times a day, stop what you’re doing and breathe into every inch of your physical body.  Imagine infusing every cell, muscle, bone, organ and tissue with ‘yourself.’  Imagine your aspirations, values and commitments filling every inch of yourself, like water in a balloon.  Take note of how that affects your mood, confidence and sense of strength.

Interacting while ‘full.’  Do the ‘fill your skin’ practice just before you go into an important meeting or conversation.  Without trying to change your behavior, just see what happens in the interaction when you’re more fully inhabiting yourself.

Filling the space outside your skin.  This is great to try in meetings or in public places. ‘Fill your skin’ first, and then imagine radiating that power out into the space around your body.  Again – no need to try to ‘act’ bigger or change your behavior in any way. Just watch what happens when you simply allow your own fullness to move into the invisible field around you.  See if you can get people to physically adjust to you, such as on the bus or in the street.  You might be amazed at the external impact that this simple internal shift can make.

Experiment with these practices and let us know what you discover!


Betty Ford: A Profile in Grit and Grace

Betty Ford did not have the title, training or experience that authorized her to lead.   Her leadership authority rested in the power of who she was.  She had a unique combination of ferocity and vulnerability that shifted the hearts, minds and habits of millions.  As such, Betty Ford’s influence style was an examplar of grit and grace in balance.

On the ‘grit’ side, she worked tirelessly for what she believed.  Time Magazine dubbed her the “Fighting First Lady.”  She was not afraid to take unpopular stands. She brought taboo topics such as cancer, mental health and drug addiction out into the open.   She got people thinking in new ways about everything from women’s rights to gun control.  She was not afraid to make people uncomfortable – so much so that some conservative politicians called for her to “resign” as the first lady.  Betty Ford was tough in the ways that we still long for our leaders to be.

Yet she balanced that toughness with great vulnerability, daring to reveal her most personal struggles in an era where that simply “wasn’t done.”   By talking about her own breast cancer, she motivated millions of women to engage in breast self-examination.  By talking about her struggles with drug addiction, she encouraged people around the world to confront and address their own addiction.

Betty Ford blended the force of her convictions and the frailty of her humanity in a way that left a lasting and positive legacy on American culture, consciousness and behavior.  That is leadership.

What about you?

As a leader at work, at home, or in your community…

  • Are you surfacing the undiscussable issues?
  • Are you ‘calling it like you see it?’
  • Are you willing to take unpopular stands for what you believe is right and fair?
  • Where do you need to bring more grit to increase your impact?

At the same time…

  • Are you approachable?
  • Do you make it safe for others to tell the truth to you?
  • How vulnerable are you willing to be, in service to those you lead?
  • Where could you offer more kindness and humanity to increase your effectiveness?

Commit to make one courageous shift in yourself to make things better for others.  And let me know how it goes!

“Everybody is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

Many of the ‘smartest’ executives I know have the greatest difficulty seeing the genius in the people around them.  I see this especially with grit-based leaders, who often suffer from what I call “smart people’s disease.”  It’s an affliction of the very intelligent, who feel they are surrounded by people who just don’t measure up to their standards.  They have succeeded by knowing what they know, doing what they do in the way they do it, and acting and thinking as quickly as they think and act.  And they assume that everyone else should and could do the same.  In other words, they are expecting fish to climb trees.

As long as these leaders expect others to be carbon copies of themselves, they will be endlessly disappointed.  They will also be unable to recognize, cultivate and leverage the sheer mastery all around them.   And, as Einstein says, they will also be making a lot of geniuses feel stupid.  This benefits absolutely no one.

What about you?

Try making a list of all the people in your world (staff, colleagues, bosses etc.) whom you feel just ‘don’t get it.’

Identify exactly what it is that each of these folks doesn’t ‘get.’

Then, identify at least one area of “genius” in each of the people you’ve listed.  If you can’t find it, you haven’t looked hard enough.

How does that help you see this person differently?

As a leader, what can you do to help this person utilize his/her genius?   How can you more intelligently and respectfully leverage that genius to benefit the team or the organization?

And if there really is no place for this ‘fish’ in your team or organization, then how can you help them find the water where they can really swim?

The Anatomy of Resentment

I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback from my previous blog, “Resentment is a Girl’s Best Friend.”  I’ve discovered that this is an issue that plagues a lot of women, whether or not we’re in positions of leadership.

The reason resentment is so erosive is that it operates largely beneath the surface.   We don’t generally see it in ourselves, much less actively admit it and work with it. But as long as it stays hidden from view, it is in charge – and it’s not pretty. Resentment WILL manifest in your actions, speech and mood, but will do so either by “leaking out your shoes” or exploding in a surprise attack.  So if we’re going to transmute resentment from an invisible saboteur into an active friend, we first have to be able to SEE it.

First, let’s distinguish resentment from anger.  Anger is a potentially mobilizing energy in response to a perceived transgression.  It works like this: something happens; you get mad; you do something about it; you move on.

Resentment is different.  It is the immobilizing combination of three elements: transgression, resignation and time.

  1. Transgression – some line (value, principle, boundary) has been crossed
  2. Resignation – you felt (probably unconsciously) that you didn’t have the power/authority to prevent the transgression or to correct it once it happened
  3. Time – there’s history here; either this particular line has gotten crossed many times before, or this person has crossed many lines with you over time.

What About You?

To disentangle yourself from resentment’s grip, you can start at any of these three places.   So that the resentments don’t pile up, I recommend a weekly inventory. Every Friday afternoon, for example, you could ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Transgression – Did anything happen this week that felt like it crossed a boundary or violated a value of yours?  If so, are you still carrying it emotionally?  Name it.  Get clear about what happened, what line got crossed, and what impact it had on you, your team, and/or results.  This can heighten your motivation/courage to confront the issue.
  2. Resignation – Are there things that bother you that feel powerless to change? If so, see if you can challenge your conclusions of powerlessness.  Take one step, however small.  Even if you don’t change the outer situation, taking action can strengthen your internal sense of authority.
  3. Time – Are there any resentments that you’ve been carrying for quite a while? The longer you carry them, the more intense and pervasive their stench becomes,  so there’s no benefit in waiting to address them.  Set yourself a time limit (24 or 48 hours) by which you’ll take some action to set things right.

Please feel free to post your reaction and thoughts.   Or experiment with these tips and comment on the results.