THE COURAGE OF VULNERABILITY: Inspiring a More Human Organization

The value of vulnerability and its role in inspiring trust, creating psychological safety, and fostering collaboration and engagement on your team has been underscored in recent years. But a naïve understanding of what it means to be vulnerable can impede your growth, limit your impact, and even blow up in your face.

When a senior VP in a manufacturing organization was promoted, his role substantially increased his accountability. He was nervous about making the leap. He had just learned about vulnerability and so bared his soul to his new team of leaders. In an opening address to his team, he said, “I want to do this job, but I’m scared and shaky and not quite sure I can come through for you. I’m going to need your help.” His candor backfired. He lost credibility and trust with the people who wanted and needed a confident leader to take charge. He was never able to regain the trust of his team and was soon removed from this position.

Let’s start with understanding what vulnerability isn’t. Vulnerability doesn’t mean being weak or submissive or indiscriminately exposing all your hidden fears and flaws. It’s not about falling apart when you need to be standing tall. It’s not about bringing all your insecurities, doubts, and worries to work with you. In short, it’s not about expecting your team to be your therapist.

Simply put, vulnerability is the courage to be yourself. It’s that simple, and it’s also that difficult. Vulnerability lies at the core of authentic leadership and understanding who you are as a person is at the core of vulnerability. Thus, the paradox of vulnerability. You must be real, and you must be stable.

Vulnerability is not a leadership technique or tool. It is a way of being in the world. Vulnerability means replacing “being professional by keeping a distance” with humanity, honesty, respect, and staying calm under pressure.

Vulnerability means:

1. Sharing your values, dreams, and intentions in your work as a leader. I remember a senior leader in the agriculture sector who began her opening speech to her team with slides of her parents farming in Saskatchewan and the values she learned about growing up on the farm. She then shared her vision for this division. Within five minutes she had inspired an entire team of leaders to be completely aligned with her.

2. Being curious and self-aware. Vulnerability means being comfortable with yourself, so you aren’t driven by approval ratings or a need to please. It means being open to learn about yourself and how your behavior impacts others. It means being open to seeing your blind spots, letting go of all blame, and being committed to grow as a leader and as a person. Being vulnerable means you don’t seek power as a way of proving your worth. You know that your worth and security come from within.

3. Having a good support system away from your work. The strength and clarity of vulnerability come from having a place away from work to bring your fears, doubts, and insecurities, so you are free to be human when you get to work. A good support system of confidants, coaches, or therapists provides perspective and a place to fall apart and get put back together again so you can return to your team with civility, compassion, and clarity.

4. Encouraging others. Because vulnerable leaders are comfortable with themselves, they are not threatened by the growth of others. They are open about their appreciation of others. They are humble enough to know they aren’t the smartest person in the room and are wise enough to extract the strength of the members of their team. They are committed to helping people become the best version of themselves.

SHAPING THE NEXT CHAPTER OF YOUR LIFE – AUTHENTICALLY

The pandemic has created an opportunity to shine a light on the quality and depth of your life, your leadership, and your relationships. The past several months have been a time of reflection and evaluation to ask questions such as:

  • Where is my career going?
  • Do I really want to spend the rest of my days working seventy hours a week?
  • How can I be a better leader by focusing on what truly matters?

One client talked about how, for the past twenty-five years, she was in the “rhythm of a corporate tune, continually reacting to the demands of others.” She said, “Now is the time to find my own new rhythm.”

I offer some strategies for moving into the next chapter of your life as you settle into the new reality which will likely be with us long-term:

  1. Decide to see this as an opportunity. Choices have great power to determine the outcome of your life.
  2. Make room to step back, pull out a journal, and answer some questions:
  • What’s been working well in your life?
  • What areas are not flowing/working well?
  • Where might you be over-accommodating, compromising yourself, and burning out?
  • What parts of your life have you felt most excited/passionate about?
  • What do you feel called to do?
  • What might need to shift/change/end?
  1. Reach for your why – your reason for being – an inspiring purpose for getting out of bed in the morning.
  2. Reflect on your most important values.
  3. Consider your unique abilities, talents, and gifts that set you apart from the crowd.
  4. Plan on how you will contribute and serve the world over the next five to ten years.
  5. Include your loved ones in your plans and intentions.

Authentically shaping the next chapter of your life, whether you stay in your current role, decide to renew it, make a transition to a new role or even a new career, or are considering what retirement might look like, requires careful and conscious attention. From time to time, we all drift away from our true nature. When we realign with our authentic self, we amplify our positive impact as a leader and create meaning and purpose in our life.

If you want to learn ways to shape the next chapter of your life in alignment with your authentic self, please join me for a complimentary one-hour webinar on September 23. This – and more – will be included in the webinar and in my upcoming virtual Life In Transitions course.

The webinar is offered at 9 am MT and 5 pm MT. Register now to make sure you get a seat!

LOOKING INTO THE SHADOWS: How Turning On The Light Can Nurture Psychological Safety

“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine. There is nothing more confining than the prison we don’t know we are in.”  – William Shakespeare
An executive I am coaching recently shared his 360 data where his direct reports expressed that they didn’t feel safe around him; that his unpredictable volatility and insensitivity created an environment that was not conducive to engagement and high performance. He believed that their response was an excuse for poor performance, and they lacked a solid work ethic, using the current remote working environment to “cop out.”
It’s not easy to hear tough feedback and see our blind spots, but it’s essential in personal and professional growth. We are in an era of daily change and uncertainty. This is a time for leaders to create and protect the space for everyone to feel psychologically safe. The first step in cultivating that environment is to reflect on ourselves as leaders – and that begins with understanding and accepting those uncomfortable truths, which I refer to as shadow work. Psychological safety around us begins with psychological safety within us.
While it’s often encouraged to focus on the light, it doesn’t make the dark go away.
The dark is just on the other side, waiting for a time to show its face. And if we don’t have the courage to bring it into the light of our awareness, we can inadvertently hurt ourselves or others. Shadow work, in its simplest form, is looking inward for what we had hidden earlier in our lives, and gradually healing those aspects of ourselves. Kimberly Fosu speaks about this in her blog, Shadow Work: A Simple Guide to Transcending The Darker Aspects of Yourself.
Let’s say that a girl is born with a strong sense of self. She knows who she is; she knows what she likes and doesn’t like; she asks for what she wants and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind! She is a strong little girl, but she is raised in a family that doesn’t know what to do with her spirit and constantly tells her to tone it down because it’s “too much.”
In order to survive, she rejects the parts of herself that are strong and confident. She grows up to be quiet, sweet, and obedient. Then, when she turns forty, she doesn’t understand why her life is so painful. The truth is, she suppressed important aspects of herself and thus feels divided. She won’t be able to feel psychologically safe – or fully create safety around her – until she does her shadow work to discover and embrace who she was meant to be.
Here’s a few things we know about shadow work:
1. It takes courage to meet with your shadow. 
When you start shadow work, you may feel the resistance you felt as a child, and the desire to keep suppressing these aspects of yourself. To become aware of something, you have to choose to see it. We are unaware of the shadow in the same way we can’t see in the darkness – we often even coach children to not be afraid of the dark. Once you turn on the light of awareness and embrace the hidden aspects of yourself that seem to be extremely uncomfortable, you open your eyes to a whole new side of yourself that you had no idea existed. If you are worried about what you might find, there is probably something important you don’t want to revisit. Instead of continuing to avoid it, you can see it as one more reason to do shadow work. This work is necessary if you want to be an authentic leader and fully realize your capacity to impact the world.
2. Become aware of your shadow. 
Ask yourself: “Was I completely accepted as a child? How did I feel most of the time? What was expected of me and what behaviors and emotions were judged by the people who raised me?” Your response to those behaviors that were judged created a shadow aspect within you. The answers to these questions will open the door to what is hidden. The shadow often finds roots in your childhood. The most important step in doing shadow work is to become aware of what is concealed. Shine a light on it to bring it out of the darkness. No matter how long you avoid looking at your shadow self, it will keep manifesting into your reality until you pay attention to it. The self that is fractured seeks to become unified, and we will be presented with opportunities to see the aspects of ourselves we have suppressed, rejected, denied, and disowned. The more you become aware of your shadow self and embrace it with some compassion, the freer you are to welcome your authentic self.
3. Shadow work is about making the unconscious conscious and the unacceptable acceptable. 
We become adults and feel we should be able to handle life better, yet we often keep falling into the same unhealthy patterns. That’s because the shadow operates outside of our conscious awareness, in the form of unconscious and limiting beliefs. The goal of shadow work is integration and appreciation – fully seeing and embracing all the aspects of yourself that make you who you are. Within your wounds lie some of your greatest and most important gifts that have yet to be unearthed.
4. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.  
Acceptance is a requirement. The minute you say something about you is “bad,” you have a reason to suppress, ignore, and deny it. Once you become aware of your shadow self, don’t shame it or blame it. Instead, give it your full acceptance. Your shadow was born from non-acceptance and rejection in the first place. It was created the moment you began to push it away. Antagonizing the shadow even more only adds fuel to the fire. The shadow is part of who you are, so look at it from a place of appreciation. Everyone has gone through a difficult time in their life that created shadows within them. Make peace with your shadow so you can find peace. Shadow work is a great way to experience inner healing and transformation through self-awareness and self-acceptance.
5. Recognize – and appreciate – triggers.
Have you ever met the most gentle, sweetest, and kind person, and in the blink of an eye something happens, and this person turns into someone else? They become mean and scary; they throw a huge tantrum or freak out. The shadow part took over when they got triggered. Triggers have the power to turn lives upside down and destroy the most cherished relationships. They spark a highly charged emotional reaction and are messengers from your shadow self. They are reflections of deep unresolved wounds that you have suppressed.  See your triggers as an invitation to delve deeper into things you are unaware of.
We are constantly evolving as leaders. Our awareness evolves as well as our ability to respond to that awareness. The authentic journey is just that – a journey into becoming more fully who we are. It’s not a destination. It’s a method of travel. While working with the shadow is about integration, you can never be completely integrated. It’s a life-long journey. Embrace it with awareness and self-compassion. Doing shadow-work means coming to know and accepting these hidden aspects of ourselves that, at some point down the road, will result in authentic self-acceptance and genuine compassion for others. In the words of Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

HOW TO BUILD COMMUNITY IN A TIME OF ISOLATION

A research project from the 1980s, documented in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that male heart attack survivors who were socially isolated had more than four times the risk of death than men with strong social connections. And a study of more than four thousand men of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii found that social networks guarded against coronary artery disease (independent of known health hazards such as high blood pressure and cigarette smoking).
Over the past four decades, there has been a sizable body of evidence documenting that being socially isolated significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk equal to that of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Simply put, people are nourished by other people. Research suggests that belonging to a tightly knit community is a significant predictor of health and mental well-being. Living beings yearn for the proximity of other living beings. Humans are happiest and healthiest when around other people, working together and helping each other. For much of history, humans have banded together as a matter of survival.
Even with pandemic fatigue, where we are weary of social distancing and isolating for the sake of our community’s health, our need for community has not changed – we desire to be heard, to be connected, to belong. Social distancing is not the same as social disconnecting. Isolating is not the same as detaching. Working together for the good of the whole is not the same as living in fear and withdrawing from each other. In our current conditions, we are called to develop a renewed connection to ourselves, to learn to enjoy solitude, to appreciate smaller spaces, and to be creative and intentional about sustaining our relationships with each other – thus finding innovative ways of sustaining community.
Living with a propensity for depression and having walked through some very dark periods in the course of my lifetime, I can suggest five strategies for fostering community during this pandemic that have worked for me:
1) Develop self-awareness. When a Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council was asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was almost unanimous: self-awareness. But how do you develop self-awareness? Self-awareness starts with checking in on yourself in the present moment. Are you afraid? Stressed? Inspired? Exhausted? Angry? Renewed? All of the above? Self-awareness comes from introspection and feedback from others. It takes time and intention but is a journey worth taking. You can only connect with others to the degree you connect with yourself.
2) Find a confidant. A confidant is a person with whom you can be real and honest. Confidants provide a space for those who are busy holding a space for everybody else. At this point in the pandemic, as fatigue is settling in for so many of us, we all need at least one confidant who can put us back together at the end of the day. Confidants are friends, spouses, coaches, lovers, or trusted colleagues that provide support, perspective, and accountability in the midst of our frustrations and challenges.
3) Practice kindness wherever you go. We are all doing the best we can to get through these challenging times. Let’s make it a point to grant each other a little grace. Even while wearing a mask we can smile with our eyes, offer encouragement with a hand gesture, and practice patience with our tone of voice. We’ve never been more alone, but we have also never been more together, sharing this experience with eight billion people on this planet. Community is developed one kind act at a time.
4) Find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In a world preoccupied with problems, community is about discovering our gifts and finding ways to bring them into focus. Community is ultimately about being needed, belonging to something beyond yourself, being inspired with a reason to face the day. It is the task of leaders, indeed the task of every citizen, to shine a light on the gifts of those in the periphery and bring them into the centre. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, we need to find a reason to put our feet on the floor each morning.
5) Get comfortable being alone. Loneliness and being alone are distinct. A desire for solitude is a defining characteristic of an authentic person. A quest for community can be one more form of manic activity if it is not rooted in a continual practice of silence and time for reflection. If you work on creating a balance between reaching out to others and enjoying what the Finns call hiljaisuus, or solitude in one’s being, you’ll strengthen your sense of self-worth and find more meaning in your life.
Our intention, in our upcoming Authentic Leadership Masterclass is to do our part to help build communities with like-minded authentic difference makers. While we show how authentic leadership presence can be applied to the leadership practices of fostering trust, building accountability, navigating change, and engaging talent, a major part of the program is to connect leaders with each other to sustain their growth, connections, and sense of community. We work with accountability partners between sessions to support each other’s growth, help each other stay on track, and sustain the insights you glean from the class experience.
We still have a few seats available for our January and February programs for those of you committed to renewed leadership development this year in a community of incredible like-minded difference makers. I hope you will join us.
To mark the passage into the promise and hope for a safe and prosperous new year, I want to borrow from history and visualize an ancient and meaningful ritual. For 2,500 years, the Japanese have been making and drinking sake, a type of rice wine brewed from fermented rice. Throughout all that time, sake has been used to mark special occasions with the people that matter most. In most celebrations involving sake, a glass is placed inside a masu cup and the host pours sake until it overflows like a waterfall. The overflowing is an act of kindness and generosity to show appreciation for the people around them. It also works as a little act of celebration, to lift the spirits and to enjoy the present state of life. Watching the sake overflow and not knowing whether it will tip over presents a beautiful moment of suspense, when time seems to slow down. By introducing a moment of suspense, the ceremony keeps your mind in the present moment, focused only on the beautiful waterfall of sake.
As a message of appreciation to all my readers over the years, I’m taking the liberty to borrow from this little Japanese ritual and overflow some sake with you. My hope is that the image of this overflow will remind us all to bring presence and generosity into this new year. May we all experience the overflow of kindness through our actions as we build community together and navigate into 2021.

Four Ways to Protect Your Well-Being In Colder Months

I love this time of year. It’s my favorite season. I call it “late summer.” The crisp air in my morning walks, the dropping temperatures, and the leaves beginning to turn remind me of going back to school, my days of harvest on the farm, starting a new year of teaching, and beginning a new business cycle.

And even though there is a lot that seems different this year with the pandemic, I’m still embracing the emerging fall.

Here are four keys to protect your mental and physical health heading into colder months:

1) Get outside. I’ve learned in my life that the way to grow through discomfort is to move toward what ails you, not away from it. There’s no growth in the comfort zone, so if you are going to grow and flourish, move toward what ails you, not away from it. The weather is the same way. If it’s windy or cold or stormy, put on the clothes that match the weather, get out and enjoy whatever is there. Pushing yourself through a little discomfort is good for both the mind and the body.

2) Don’t purchase collective disease. I’m hearing a murmuring of voices these days that say, “we’ll get another wave of COVID when the days get colder and flu season hits,” but I’m not allowing it to frighten me. I am embracing life too much right now to let any cynic bring me down with more depressive thoughts. They don’t serve me well and I don’t think they serve the world.

3) Live with purpose. A purpose or vision is a powerful force in one’s life. My purpose of making a difference in people’s lives through teaching and writing was shaken last March when people immediately stopped hiring speakers. When the pandemic hit, I faced depressive thoughts, self-doubt, and fear. I temporarily lost my purpose, but after facing the dark night of my soul and considerable reflection, I began to realize that my purpose lay not in what I do but who I am. With a steadfast purpose to continue to teach and a vision to shift my work to an online format, we developed a three month virtual Authentic Leadership Development Masterclass: https://ally-stone-9892.mindmint.com/landing_page_8o9taxbvabex0il3g7b4

While self-doubt, fear, and depressive thoughts still surface at times, having a renewed sense of purpose dissolves the negativity and empowers me with regenerated energy.

4) Don’t be distracted by the detractors. It seems to be human nature to succumb to negativity, self-pity, and self-absorption by binge watching Netflix or endless internet surfing. Rising above what is easy and comfortable by responding to a vision of possibility is where self-respect is born. Envision yourself as healthy or create a business that will make the world better or learn a new skill that will challenge and inspire you. Then turn off the TV, set your devices down, unplug the news, and go get some exercise, sign up for an online class that inspires you, check out a recovery group, or pick up a book and start studying. Stop complaining about the world and start doing your part to make it better. Do this not because it will make you better than others but because of what it will do for you.

I have always loved the words of the great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, when he said, at the age of ninety-three, This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Facing Racism: It Starts With Personal Accountability

I was lamenting with a colleague about how we all have areas in our lives and our leadership that drive other people crazy, cause damage to the world around us, and hurt the people we care about. And we are blind to them. That’s why we call them blind spots in our leadership development program. So much of what we bring to the world causes harm and requires intentional work to improve our leadership, and yet has become so habitual that we aren’t even aware of it. It all seems fine to us, but we are blind to how destructive it can be.

So it would appear that perhaps the eruption of anger toward inequality and discrimination in our society is a reckoning of our own blind spots around the issue of racism. Professional athletes this week have reminded us all that there is something more important at work here than winning games, making money, and the achievement of goals.

It seems to be human nature to avoid problems and dodge the truth. After all, who wants to look at the financial ledger of our businesses or our lives? It’s easier to procrastinate a visit to the doctor than face lab work results. It’s easier to avoid facing the difficulties in a marriage than confront what’s really going on. Who wants to admit they have an addiction and actually do something about it?

It’s easy to criticize leaders in an organization for not facing reality or confronting brutal facts and acting on the implications. But how many of us do this in our own lives? And it’s easy to judge the racism we see around us, but what about the unacknowledged prejudice within us?

I recently spoke to a high-ranking public service leader who publicly made a statement that there was systemic racism in the culture that she led, and she was taking action to rectify it. She opened herself to much criticism from her employees, but her courage to face reality demonstrated the strength of her character. It also deepened her credibility and the respect of her best employees.

We all have our prejudices. Only when we own up to them and face this reality will we begin to heal the world – and heal our lives. Helping people see their blind spots is a large part of the work we do in our retreats and online programs for developing authentic leaders (see www.irvinestone.com).

There are specific actions you can take to change the world by facing some of your own racism blind spots. Let’s do our part to heal the world by taking personal accountability:

  • Speak to someone you know well who is different from you – in gender, race, ethnic background, or sexual orientation – and ask if they have experienced you being prejudiced, disrespectful, judgmental, or insensitive – and how. Say thank you and listen carefully to what they have to say. Be sincerely open to learn from them.
  • If the level of honesty about these questions may be in doubt, invite the people you work with to provide the answers to these questions anonymously.
  • If they honestly don’t perceive you as prejudiced, then still take time to listen to what they have to say. If something in you gets triggered, resist the human tendency to get defensive and instead use the trigger to open a new door to learn something. It’s important to begin the dialogue.
  • Treat all diversity as an opportunity to learn and face the truth. It’s a life-long endeavor, and one worth pursuing – for the sake of a good life and for the sake of the survival of our species.