“I can’t believe you wrote about that.”
The week before, a friend had read my book, Undone. Although she already knew some of the intimate details of my life, she didn’t expect to see some of those hard details displayed in all their un-glory on ivory pages. Thus, she sent me a quick email. I could hear the concern behind her words: You do know people will actually read this, right?!
I’ve heard similar comments a handful of times over the past year, from friends and strangers alike. There’s a strange mix of both surprise and appreciation that I would be transparent about the less glamorous parts of our story, as if honesty is something of an oddity these days.
Perhaps it is.
As a result, I’ve endured much second-guessing. Was my decision to write from such an authentic place a wise one? At times, I didn’t know. In fact, earlier this year, as I put the finishing touches on Book 2, I considered pulling back, sharing less, hiding more. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d said too much, revealed too much. Should I keep this story or that story to myself? Should I try to make myself and my family appear more “put together” and “polished?”
After months of internal debate, I don’t think so. You should know there are plenty of details I did NOT include, in both books. Certain experiences and insights are private, to be weathered inwardly and not displayed publicly. But I’ve come to the conclusion that to be less than authentic is to be less than honest. And I’m not willing to compromise my integrity in exchange for a polished persona or your better opinion.
Outside the realm of book-writing, however, all of this begs an important question: Is there a place for vulnerability in leadership? When it comes to leading a ministry, an organization, a team, a business, or even your family, does authenticity have true merit? Or is a leader’s influence dependent on her ability to hide the less glorious details behind a publicity package and, instead, display a strong front? And, while we’re asking hard questions, does authenticity have limits, a threshold over which we shouldn’t cross for the sake of ourselves and those who hear us?
These are worthy questions that require serious consideration. Any time you and I are in a position of influence, we need to think long and hard about how our words—the raw ones as well as the polished ones—could potentially impact others.
Even so, I am convinced that authentic leadership is the best kind—perhaps the only kind. To lead is to take someone by the hand and move forward, together, in a joint direction. It’s not so much about standing on a mountain and looking down at the crowds, but about standing at the base, and figuring out how we’re going to hike up, together. Trust is essential, and authenticity is the means to trust. Without it, no one will take your hand or dare scale the impossible with you.
However, authenticity in leadership is less a blanket permission and more a humble responsibility. As you and I contemplate our level of vulnerability in leadership, we must make three considerations:
1. The Purpose. Perhaps before I talk about the purpose of vulnerability in leadership, it’s best if I talk about what it is not. Being vulnerable as a leader does not mean dumping on your team. It doesn’t mean processing through your pain during work hours and dragging everyone around you through your crisis. And it doesn’t mean you need to expose every personal failure and flaw to those you lead. True vulnerability in leadership is about the other person, not yourself. It’s exposing your unpolished, in-progress self with the motive of connecting with unpolished, in-progress people. Authenticity, when coupled with wisdom, sparks relationship, camaraderie, and teamwork. In other words, it’s about creating safety, not sacrificing it. When safety happens, we not only heal and grow together, but we can travel great distances together.
2. The Parameters. Authenticity comes with significant responsibility. It’s not a carte blanche permission to bone-deep revelation. Blanket authenticity is not only reckless but selfish. To reveal every sordid detail of your hard and complicated story on passersby is to be callous to the vulnerabilities of others. Perhaps even manipulative. Authenticity respects boundaries. The end doesn’t justify the means if the means is going to wreak havoc along the way. Also, authenticity doesn’t reveal another’s person’s story, even if it would serve the needs of you or your team. To be vulnerable about the flaws of your spouse, your child, your neighbor, your coworker is unfair and, once again, self-serving. Tell only those stories you have permission to tell. Even then, you may still need to keep some things private. That’s called discernment.
3. The Possibilities. Allowing yourself to be an appropriately authentic leader holds tremendous possibilities for your team. First, as you own your mistakes and expose your struggles, you provide permission for others to do the same. Rather than creating an environment in which everyone feels the need to hide, you create an environment of collaboration. Moreover, your willingness to be vulnerable shows you esteem honesty and integrity AND you value the people in your organization more than the next deal. This creates fertile ground for not only more meaningful partnerships, but a environment primed to achieve the results you’re aiming for. Even better? It primes each member—not the least of which is yourself—for personal growth.
How have you seen a leader’s authenticity help (or hinder) influence?