Being vulnerable: A leadership lesson the pandemic demands

When I started a leadership development program, none of us saw the COVID-19 pandemic coming. But the lessons in vulnerability and creating a psychologically safe environment for my team turned out to be vital
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When I participated in Red Hat’s Accelerated Leadership Development Program (ALDP), I learned a lot about myself, and what it means to be an effective leader. But my most important takeaways from the program were learning the power of vulnerability, how to ask for help, and to not seek perfection – because it doesn’t exist.

When the program started in the fall of 2019, none of us expected the events of spring 2020. I didn’t know at the time just how impactful the program would be, and that it would lead me to have an important epiphany, in the midst of a pandemic.

Among the many parts of the program, the component that I found most impactful by far was the leadership coaching.

The trouble with perfect

I met my coach, Michael Rubell, during the kickoff conference in October 2019. Throughout the 9-month program, Michael and I had a call every other week. During these sessions, we talked about my leadership development goals, my strengths and growth opportunities, feedback I received from my team, my manager and my peers through a Tilt365 assessment, and how the program was going overall. During these sessions, l learned a lot about myself - through Michael’s challenging questions that stretched me out of my comfort zone and felt like a mirror being placed in front of me.

In my constant search for perfection and my need to have all the answers, I was holding myself to a standard that was unattainable.

As soon as I let my guard down and brought my whole authentic self to these sessions, I unlocked things that I had never realized before about my fears and my anxieties. Things that were likely holding me back because I never felt comfortable being completely open and honest about them at work, for fear that they would make me look "weak." I learned that I had more self-doubt than I realized, and that in my constant search for perfection and my need to have all the answers, I was holding myself to a standard that was unattainable. I shed more tears with Michael than I would like to admit, and it was cathartic.

[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also:  Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

COVID-19 turned normal upside down

It was during the last half of the program that COVID-19 hit the United States, and life seemed to flip upside down, as it did for everyone. The things we all deemed “normal” in February were no longer standard by mid-March, and all the while work continued to be busy, ALDP deadlines were still pending, and I decided to change jobs and move to a new team in the midst of it all. At the same time, my son’s world was also impacted because he was no longer at preschool or able to see his occupational therapist (OT), and his anxiety increased significantly. This made life at home, where we were all stuck, feel very heavy and sometimes unbearably stressful. All of this seemed to pile on top of each other, and at times, I felt like I just couldn’t continue to keep all the balls in the air. Something had to drop or I was going to have a breakdown.

I've never liked asking for help because I've always had this unreasonable feeling that it would mean I was weak.

It was around that time during a session with Michael that I had an epiphany - I needed help. I’ve never liked asking for help because I’ve always had this unreasonable feeling that it would mean I was weak, and I wanted to be able to take everything that came my way in stride. But it was too much, and I was only hurting myself and those around me by not admitting that I needed more support.

So I did it - I asked my support system - my husband, my parents, my best friend (who happens to be a child life specialist and music therapist) and my ALDP group project teammates - for help. I was vulnerable and admitted that I wasn’t able to manage everything that I had been trying to manage. It seems like such a simple thing in retrospect, but it was a big deal for me, and it felt like a weight had been lifted as they all stepped in to help carry some of that weight that I had been carrying. This was a turning point for me, and I’m truly grateful for the wisdom and guidance that Michael shared with me - the simple yet powerful gift of knowing when to ask for help, and the gift of vulnerability.

Why leaders must show vulnerability with their team

You make work a safe space for them to admit that they need help, to ask for it before it's too late.

As a leader, showing vulnerability with your team is so important, especially today as we’re all dealing with a global pandemic. Everyone is experiencing this pandemic differently, and you never know what someone is dealing with outside of work. By showing your team and colleagues that you’re vulnerable and human, and by bringing your whole self to work, you make it safe for them to show vulnerability, too. You make work a safe space for them to admit that they need help, to ask for it before it’s too late, and to feel comfortable not being perfect (because there’s no such thing).

Since coming to this realization, I’ve led by example with my new team - showing them that it’s okay to decline meetings or shift 1:1 meetings if I have to tend to family matters, that it’s okay to open meetings by talking about the struggle to find a new OT for my son, that it’s completely reasonable to ask to move a meeting because I need a mental/physical break or to take a 1:1 while walking outside. These small actions can mean the difference between someone on the team feeling comfortable prioritizing their family or their well-being over work too, or not. Well-being is something I’ve decided to prioritize for myself, and I want to help my team prioritize it for themselves as well.

Red Hat’s CEO, Paul Cormier, spoke at our graduation ceremony and offered some similar words of advice as we embarked on the next stage of our leadership journey: “Stay true to yourself, and be authentic. Be human - never lose sight of humanity. Be empathetic, and be compassionate.” I couldn’t agree more.

3 tips to get you started

Overcoming the fear of being vulnerable and opening up to your colleagues on a personal level can be difficult at first - it can feel intimidating and awkward. But the results are well worth getting out of your comfort zone. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

1. Develop awareness of how it feels when you’re vulnerable. Be aware of how it makes you feel physically, emotionally. Write down your fears about being vulnerable. The more aware you are of these things, the less foreign it will feel to you over time.

2. Find someone you trust, and practice it with them. Start small and see how it feels… It’s like a muscle and the more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel.

3. Reflect on your experience - was it positive? Did it end with a good result? Do you feel less stressed or anxious? Reflecting will help you realize the true value of being vulnerable at work, and you’ll learn things along the way that you can use in the future.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Megan leads the Customer & Partner Experience (CPX) organization at Red Hat. The mission of the team is to drive customer and partner success by collecting, analyzing, and operationalizing feedback.