Many people don’t know I grew up in a trailer park. I’m not ashamed of my upbringing, mind you; it just rarely arises in conversation. I first realized the effect my upbringing had on my current disposition while in London. Steve and I spent much time discussing my childhood and the way I developed a fierce sense of ambition. Growing up in a lower socioeconomic community meant I sometimes felt that I was “less than.” I wanted to prove I was good enough and smart enough and capable enough to compete with others.
When I was in the twelfth grade, I won the Milky Way scholar athlete award. In case you were wondering, this is not given to the student who can eat the most Milky Way candy bars (though I am sure I would have won that too), but rather, for outstanding academic performance by student athletes. I remember a deep sense of pride when receiving the award in front of my classmates. I got the same feeling when I was named high school valedictorian and a top ten senior at the University of Oklahoma.
In these moments, I finally felt like enough. Even now, when I sense unbridled ambition welling up inside, I can trace the impulse back to childhood. My desire to achieve and succeed at all costs comes out of growing up in many ways wanting to “prove” myself and give evidence that I belong.
I’ve also realized that growing up in a trailer park made me a private, even sometimes disconnected, person who often shies away from sharing the real me with others. I have to force myself to open up and be vulnerable with those closest to me. Talking about myself often feels uncomfortable. When things get too personal, I can change the subject like a champ.
When I penned my first book, a writer friend of mine read an early copy of the manuscript and commented, “You’re always the hero in this book. You need to be more honest about areas where you’ve failed.” I hadn’t realized it during the writing process, but she was right. My tendency was to create a facade of uninterrupted success and hold my cards close to my chest, though in reality, I had failed as much as the next person. I pushed through the discomfort and reworked the manuscript.
I’m not alone.
Leading a company that produced large events for a solid decade means I’ve spent a lot of time in green rooms with “important” people. They are often places where everyone talks about books they’ve written, companies they’ve launched, money they’ve raised, and awards they’ve received. They keep others at arm’s length, and work hard to create the aura of success. (There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but the trend indicates that I’m not the only leader who struggles with openness.)
Leaders can easily forget that people follow them, in large part, because of who they are. So you should own it. Yet, the higher one climbs the ladder of influence and power, the more difficult it is to be open. Ladder climbing typically leads to power tripping, which leads to a loss of influence.
Openness is the natural next step to self-discovery. Once you know yourself, you must ask, “What am I going to do with what I have come to know?” The answer is to move from a posture of self-awareness to self-disclosure.
A sabbatical forced me to get real: I was not as good a leader as I thought I was. I was stale, stressed, strained, drained. And my failure to remain healthy was hurting those closest to me.
Kevin Kruse, a Forbes columnist and author of Employee Engagement 2.0, says that in order to be an authentic, leaders must become “self-actualized individuals who are aware of their strengths, their limitations, and their emotions. They also show their real selves to their followers. They do not act one way in private and another in public; they don’t hide their mistakes or weaknesses out of fear of looking weak . . . They are not afraid to show their emotions, their vulnerability and to connect with their employees.”1
Like most habits in a leader’s life, this is easier said than implemented. In the last couple of years, I have begun working to nurture it in my life. I found that several practices were especially helpful to me and are shared by many influencers I respect:
Perform an isolation evaluation. Every leader runs the risk of quarantining himself or herself in an ivory tower. Evaluate your own level of isolation by surveying the number and quality of relational connections in your life. Ask those close to you, “Do you think I am connected or isolated?” Lone Ranger leaders are destined for trouble. Even the actual cowboy character had Tonto.
Decide to make deeper connections. Achieving depth in one’s relationship is something that springs from a choice. It is a bit like deciding to ride a roller coaster even though one is afraid of heights. The cost is counted, the decision is made, and each subsequent choice becomes easier than the last. Challenge yourself to disclose personal information about yourself or ask serious questions during conversations with others. Relational depth often emerges from intentional dialogue.
Answer the dreaded questions. Skilled leaders are often skilled communicators, and skilled communicators know how to dodge a question. But part of sharing the real you is just allowing the real you to be known, and this comes through responding to honest inquiries from others around you. Don’t resist when people try to pry open the lid on your life’s box. When someone asks a dreaded question you’d rather not answer, don’t give in to the temptation to avoid it. Pause before responding, and if you can trust the person with the information, share honestly.
Invest heavily in long-term friendships. Influencers, particularly extroverts and connectors, are always making new “friends.” The tendency can be to invest up to a point in a set of individuals and then move on. You naturally share less of yourself with new friends. So leaders can end up answering the same questions and telling the same stories over and over without penetrating the surface of who they are. Is your closest friend group in a constant state of turnover? If so, you probably need to work on your level of personal openness.
Learn to say, “Sorry.” Often we become most real when we become most remorseful. Take time to apologize to those you’ve wronged or hurt. Set a day on your calendar each month when you send handwritten cards or e-mails to all the people you were a jerk to or need to offer an olive branch. You’ll find that apologies can become soil where self-disclosure grows most easily.
Find a confidant. Every leader I know needs a confidant. Not someone on your team who reports to you or is a peer, or even your boss. Choose someone you can rely on, share with, lean into for tough decisions, and receive counsel from, a trusted adviser.
Establish a habit of confession, one of vulnerability and transparency, not concealing. A habit of confession brings things into the light. Confession leads to mercy and healing. As the leader, you must go first in terms of confession and authenticity. Authenticity flows from the top down, not the bottom up.
Authentic leaders must have the strength to admit when they’ve made a mistake and take the steps to fix it.
More on leadership identity and other essential leadership habits in H3 Leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle, which released this week.
Brad Lomenick is a renowned speaker, sought-after leadership consultant, and leader for 10 years of Catalyst, one of the largest gatherings of young Christian leaders in the nation. He is the author of The Catalyst Leader, and H3 Leadership. More at bradlomenick.com.