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February 2014: Communicating About Self: A Powerful Yet Overlooked Leadership Strategy

The distant hero – romantically saving others while remaining aloof – has long punctuated the plot lines for blockbuster movies and novels. Such idealism makes for great fiction, and poor leadership.

In the real world of families, children are advantaged by knowing, understanding and respecting their parents. In a similar way, employees benefit from leaders who are transparent and genuine. Too many organizational leaders miss opportunities to connect because they are stingy with self-communication.

Communicating about self requires clarity about one’s experience and views, emotional awareness, and a desire to be known. Self-aware leaders enjoy a greater range of options for sharing who they are.

As a leader, I can choose to reveal myself in a variety of ways:

  • Permitting the people around me to gain understanding about what I believe and value, what I expect of myself, and what I’m up against.

  • Offering glimpses into how I got here, and what I learned from my upbringing; sharing relevant details of my journey, teachers, important turning points, career valleys and mountaintops.

  • Sharing insights about my life/work maturity spikes, and what triggered those. Reflecting with others on “what I used to be like,” vs. today.

  • Exposing my thinking about what separates good from great decision-makers, people developers, leaders. Disclosing what I’m doing to challenge myself, and to improve my own leadership.

  • Disclosing what kind of relationship I would like to build with you, what I could gain from a deeper connection, and what it might look like if I were providing high value to you.

  • Sharing my philosophy of leadership, e.g. “I don’t necessarily believe that giving answers is the most fruitful way to build confidence. People usually have to reach the other side of struggle to see that it was beneficial. That’s at least what I have come to believe.”

  • Telling stories about current self-learning: “I’m learning that impatience can assist or distract, depending on the situation. Last week, in a staff meeting, I provided ‘productive impatience’ by moving the group to a point of decision. This morning, I was too pushy – my impatience got in the way of progress.”

On a weekly basis, I interact with leaders who are irrationally reluctant, or too afraid, to show their real selves to the people around them. Examples of irrational reluctance include the belief that a leader must always maintain privacy, or the reasoning that if a leader “gets too close” that leader will not be able to make hard decisions involving the persons they share with.

These are worthwhile cautions, but unreliable rules of thumb. Remaining distant might prove more perilous to relationships, and to the system, than opening up.

If you want to evaluate how self-communicating you are, here is a good indicator to keep in mind:

A key feature of deeper relationships is a greater focus on one-on-one interactions vs. group meetings.

Consider, for yourself:

How well do your own children know you?

When’s the last time you connected on a deeper level with your spouse?

When you think about your five most important work colleagues, how would you assess the depth of each relationship?

What steps might you take to overcome your reluctance to be known?

Whether the setting is parenting, partnering or presiding, self-revelation is not a leadership tangent. It’s essential.

5 Responses to “February 2014: Communicating About Self: A Powerful Yet Overlooked Leadership Strategy”

  1. February 01, 2014 at 6:08 am, Sally Miller said:

John, When are you coming to Houston? I may be able to have you meet some people (business) for a future event in Houston. Sally

  1. February 01, 2014 at 1:46 pm, Mary Martin said:

I would like further information as to what venues and circumstances make best sense for the leader to be out front or when it’s best to give others a chance to be heard

  1. February 01, 2014 at 2:21 pm, Graeme Roberts said:

This is such great advice, John. My father died 18 years ago, and I still long every day to know what he was thinking and feeling. It is relatively easy to reveal manly failings (speaking as a man) like intolerance, impatience or excessive aggression, but talking about a time of weakness, cowardice or envy, for example, demands a very clear sense of self and loving acceptance of one’s frail humanity.

  1. February 01, 2014 at 6:17 pm, Rocco said:

John my 2 cents – nice re-inforcement observations – Thanks. As far as this transaprency of sharing builds relationships – many of my experiences in the role of leader – the revelations you suggest at first enable more judgement of me. It is only after sticking to it – deepening the realtionship however possible while more importantly avoid damaging activities, and if there is an “event” that really enables connection, does the judging stop and the trust and ccloseness begin.

  1. February 01, 2014 at 8:19 pm, Krista said:

Reflecting on my own experiences in both family and business relationship building, I observe that any person in a position of power experiences risk in sharing self. The barrier to overcome is seeing the great rewards available when we are courageous and take that risk. I frequently ask myself – what am I willing to give to this important relationship?, and I often recognize sharing self takes more effort and is essential as an investment in a genuine and deeper connection. I love to see opportunities taken to reach out, be vulnerable, and clarify our own need for connection as leaders, parents, children and partners. Thanks for this essential reminder of a key skill in leveraging relationships effectively to enrich our work and personal lives.

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