Leading with your whole heart

She Says Brighton organised an event last week for over 100 women to come together to share advice and learning and talk about finding our voices. I joined three friends, who are also leaders of businesses in Brighton, on the panel.

The four of us met through a MD networking group set up for women in the city and we all really value the space to talk about what works well and what doesn’t work so well when a running a business.

The global She Says movement is all about seeing more women at the top, and the evening was a fantastic platform for women to come together and talk about their personal stories.

It was also another of those times where I wobble slightly as I notice that Neo and the way we try to work at Neo is a bit different.

We discussed the difference between a mentor and a coach and a business advisor and agreed that this relationship could have many guises and work in a multitude of ways, but that the space to explore ideas and find the answers within yourself with someone holding that safe space, has been hugely beneficial to all of us on the panel. We encouraged other women to find their voice, ask for help and seek out potential mentors in whatever guise works best for them.

Talking vulnerability

We also talked about what our teams needed from us as leaders and, for the first time in such a public arena, I felt it was okay to say that I talk about feeling vulnerable with my team. I say when I feel anxious or nervous or when I’m having an off day, I ask my team for help, and I say when I don’t know how to solve things. For me, it’s more important for my team to know the truth then to have a false impression of who and how I am. The response to this has been both reassuring and energizing. People have been very kind following the debate and there does seem to be an appetite for more conversation around expressing vulnerability, especially in our work lives.

There are many inspirational people making the case for us to truly understand that ‘what makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful’. Brene Brown has devoted years to researching and evaluating our stories that clearly show us that those of living happily and wholeheartedly are those that are able to see vulnerability as a strength and have found the courage to embrace what many of us fight against. She defines courage as the ability ‘to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart’.

For most of us, it is in our personal relationships where we talk about feeling nervous or anxious, upset or worried, stressed or out of our depth. Truth and honesty are the bedrock of human connections and we feel safe with our friends, lovers and partners to be truthful about what is really going on for us.

I believe that having truthful human connections is our real purpose – it’s what we are here to do – so why would we segment our lives and only seek those true connections in our non-work life?

When we hide our vulnerabilities we hide our true selves. When we hide our true selves we are limiting ourselves. Surely it’s better to create environments where we can be the best versions of ourselves. For this to happen we need to be able to bring our true selves to our work.

Again some hugely inspirational thinking has been done exploring wholeness at work – the idea that we need to show up as we really are to build the relationships that serve us as individuals and serve our organisations. We’re just embarking on a project with Joel and Michelle Levey who have been pioneering mindfulness at work for nearly 40 years and provide organisations with tools for employees to be truly present at work and be able to really listen to each other and respond with compassion.

So how do we find opportunities for these honest connections to happen in our businesses? Maybe it needs to start with leaders talking about their vulnerabilities and finding the right way for vulnerability to show up in their businesses. I think the notion that leaders are infallible is hugely problematic. It sets unrealistic expectations that permeate through the organisation. It suggests that we’re looking for perfection, we’re expecting only the best, that there’s no place for anything else.

What makes us human

I make mistakes often, I find managing my energy really challenging. I need the support of my team around me and I have days of the month where my brain doesn’t work as well as it does at other times. I also have days where I’m on fire, I know the real value of me and we move mountains. If I only talk about those days, if I only let my team really see me in the good times, I am not showing them my real self and my connection with them can never be true. I am limiting the possibility of those relationships.

We see vulnerability as weakness and failing, we’re worried about being judged and being ‘less’ then others. Yet vulnerability is the stuff that makes us human.

I am finding it powerful and challenging in equal measures to try and let myself be seen as I really am as a human and as a leader. It is revealing and exposing and it gets mighty hard in the face of fear or scarcity. We are trying to create a safe space at Neo where we can all show up as we really are, where we know and understand each others vulnerabilities and where truthful human connections can happen. I talk about the love I feel for them – it’s real and it holds us together in tough times.

So while the wobble used to make me question my and Neo’s legitimacy, I recognise it now as the fear of being different, a vulnerability, and I can more easily steady myself. I think there are many other people exploring similar ways of working in Brighton and beyond and I’m really looking forward to continuing the conversation.