Many years ago, when I first came to Washington to work as a newsletter editor, I got to know my printer’s sales representative pretty well. Don was perpetually chipper. If you asked him how things were going, he would always say, “Things couldn’t be better.”
Regardless of what was going on, he was always upbeat. I asked him one day whether anything ever bothered him. Surely he must have his share of bad days, just like everyone else.
He gave me an explanation that I still remember and have found myself employing in social situations: “Jay, no one wants to hear about your problems. When you’re in sales, you have to give the customer the impression that you’re on top of the world, that you couldn’t possibly be more successful—even if you’re not.”
Yes, and how many times have you been at a networking event and the conversation goes something like this:
“Bob, good to see you. How’s it going?”
“Great! How about you?
“Glad to hear it! Jay, I’ll catch up with you later. Great seeing you!”
This past weekend, I was thinking about how superficial our interactions can be compared to…prison life. Prison life? Let me explain.
I am involved in a prison ministry called Kairos, and last week we were working with inmates to help them tear down the psychological and spiritual walls in their lives. Prisons are not a fun place, and you have to act tough to survive. For most guys, acting tough starts long before they land in jail. Their walls go up in childhood, defense mechanisms that keep out feelings of insecurity, insulate against abuse and substitute for love. Walls can protect you, but they also isolate, alienate and dehumanize in an environment that is starkly devoid of genuine interaction and caring.
Ironically, the inmates who have gone through the Kairos program live more freely than those of us on the outside who work with them. They’ve managed to tear down their walls and create a community built on respect, honesty, trust and love. It is the most extraordinary, powerful and positive force I have ever encountered—and it’s inside a jailhouse.
Kairos has at its heart the love of Christ (and in our view, you can’t top that); but said in a more secular way, it’s about the power of vulnerability.
It’s interesting that vulnerability is now recognized by management experts and executive coaches as one of the hallmarks of great leadership. Quite simply, making yourself vulnerable shows you are human. It fosters connection, sharing and communication. And if you create a safe place where your employees feel they can let down their guard, if only momentarily, think about how those silos and walls can come tumbling down. Think about how productivity can go up because people are actually cooperating.
Vulnerability is not weakness. It is not about making excuses or ignoring the consequences of our actions. Viewed through the lens of servant leadership, vulnerability is actually power. As Keith Rosen writes in “Showing Vulnerability Can Make You a Stronger Manager, “While it may sound counterintuitive, it’s a leadership paradox; being vulnerable does not equate to weakness but to greater strength. When you embrace your humanity and express your vulnerabilities, you become a fearless and invincible leader.”
So the next time someone asks how you’re doing, why not open up a little? You don’t have to whine, cry or throw a pity party—just share and listen. You’ll be amazed at what happens.
Check out this TED Talk to learn more about vulnerability: