My palms are sweaty and there is a roar in my ears — I realise it is the sound of my heart pounding. My legs feel like I have climbed 1000 steps and I can see my hands are shaking as Irene Green is calling my name to come up on stage. I turn and look at the audience. The room is full but I take a deep breath and walk up onto the stage smiling and feeling outwardly confident.
I know that it may come as a surprise to you that I still get nervous before any presentation. But on this particular occasion, I was at my most nervous. I was the closing keynote speaker at the 2017 Harcourts conference and the story I was about to tell was a very personal one.
There has been so much written about leadership and vulnerability over the years; I have read books by Brene Brown who says that vulnerability is actually the courage to show up and be seen.
As a female leader in a male dominated industry — often referred to as the boy’s club — it is much easier to have my “shoulder pads on” than to be vulnerable, because they provide me with a level of armour.
Like many women, I often have that voice in my head that tells me, “show vulnerability and you will be judged”.
Being labelled is about being judged. I have been labelled as too hard, too soft, over confident, irrational, lacking emotional intelligence — the list goes on. But it’s not anything other women haven’t faced.
Not long after I took on the role of chief executive within the Harcourts Group, Bryan Thompson took me aside and said, “they need to see who I see, who your friends see”. Those words have stuck with me over the years and often remind me to drop the amour, to be authentic and vulnerable.
Well Bryan, you missed it. Here I am about to step up on stage and potentially give my harshest critics more labels to throw at me, or, I was going to gain a deeper connection with the people I lead, because I let them into my life just that little bit more.
I told my story — the ups and downs, the divorce, the break down, the work I do in Fiji and my journey to becoming my strongest self. I made it to the end and I got an unexpected standing ovation.
By allowing myself to be most vulnerable and authentic on stage, I had forged respect and connection across the group that over time will only get stronger.
The fear most of us have when we are vulnerable is that people will see us as weak, that it is going to make us feel uncomfortable and it may get messy. However, it is perhaps the most accurate measure of courage you can have. We are most vulnerable when things are going wrong, when we feel helpless or we have major challenges to overcome. But when we admit this, we are at our strongest and most courageous — and this is what people connect with.
As leaders, we are often required to make unpopular decisions, to take a tough stand on issues to ensure that policies are being adhered to. Being vulnerable shows you are human.
The truth is that I don’t do vulnerability well and I am sure that many other women don’t either. I have had to be strong, smart, prove my worth, fit into various moulds, not show too much emotion and always show confidence in the decisions I make.
At a recent Amy Cuddy workshop, I became self aware of my body language and how I naturally stand in a power position — whether that is waking up in the morning, addressing the network or sitting at a board meeting. What I find interesting is that until I heard Amy Cuddy, I didn’t realise that was what I was doing.
I often have to make unpopular decisions and ones that I know I will be criticised for. When the calls start coming in, if you face each one with dread you will not, as Cuddy says, be presenting your authentic best self. I have since learnt this means you should allow people to tell you how they feel about your decisions and allow yourself to be criticised, whilst at the same time remaining quietly confident — but not arrogant — about your decisions. It does not mean there are times when I would rather curl up into a ball and there are many times I ask myself: “why am I doing this job?”
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What I have learnt however, is that strength and vulnerability are actually two sides of the same coin as such. You cannot have one without the other. As a leader it takes great strength for me to show who I am. Despite my fears of not being liked or accepted, of accepting my failures, of not knowing the answers and acknowledging that from time to time, I will be judged and labelled.
I have become very self-aware of my impact on others and have found that by revealing “my journey”, I have created long term connections and have built trust. I believe that is where the power lies — in your femininity and the style of leadership you bring to the table.
Amy Cuddy’s research shows that when you feel powerful you are naturally optimistic, more creative, have a greater sense of self, see challenges as opportunities and think more clearly.
Vulnerability is not something we can “nail” as leaders; it is an ongoing journey of learning how to get better at it all the time.
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.