I’m a guy, forgive me, but I don’t, or at least didn’t do vulnerability.

Through my life I’ve learned that leadership is about unending dichotomies. I’m the boss, can I also be your friend?  I always loved my employees and customers, but sometimes tough love is required.

As I grew as a leader, I always viewed a part of my role to show no fear.  And at least in a simplistic sense this is ok. Who wants to follow a leader who is always scared to take the next step.  Every morning, I did (and still do) put on my virtual armor looking for dragons to slay.  That worked pretty well until I hit a crisis moment when I was 46 or so years young.

My crisis story:  For the first 20+ years of my career as a deep underground mining engineer I worked as an employee. I always knew at some point I would own my own business, but I was 43 years young when I jumped off the entrepreneurial cliff, wife and two young kids in tow.

The mining business is cyclical. My employer, a global mining contractor, was going through tough times and decided to get out of the engineering business. Feeling, and certainly showing no fear (I was an engineer and knew I could always get a job) we sold our house, cashed in most of our chips, and we bought a failing engineering business that at the time was losing about $100k per month. We stemmed the losses and saved the business but for the next 10 years we were in what seemed like near continuous survival mode.

Fast forward a few years and we were in crisis, again. Our employees in Canada and the US were feeling that at any moment the bank would show up and put a lock on the door.  I of course “knew” I had to show no fear, so I maintained my story that I just was not going to let that happen.  No one wants to follow a leader who is scared.

As part of dealing with crisis we brought 20 or so leaders from our Canadian and US offices together for a weekend of strategic planning to get everyone on the same page as to how we were going to get through this crisis. The first day, Saturday, was a lot of talking and culture work to bond the entire team. Saturday night was some heavy drinking to help bond the team.  Sunday morning arrived with hangovers, and somehow through the haze I came to my senses and realized that no one believed me when I said I was not going to let the business fail.

Then with a fit of inspiration, I expressed my vulnerability and told the team that I too was scared. Of course I was, but I wasn’t, or was I – sometimes these dichotomies are a challenge even inside our own heads.  In any event my inspiration worked and once I shared that I too was scared, the team started believing me that I was not going to let the business fail.

The last almost funny part of the story – at the time of the story I didn’t actually realize what I had done and why it had worked. I went on for quite a few more years – 10 years of survival led to 5 years of rock and roll and an eventual highly successful exit for all.  Several years after selling the business I was at a conference that featured Berne Brown as a main speaker (4 hours on stage talking with 250 CEOs of businesses from $5M to multi billions in revenue. Brown told her Darning Greatly vulnerability story and that is where I finally figured the dichotomy out.

It took me decades, but hopefully if you’ve made this far in my story you can be a quicker learner than me. Leadership is a never-ending series of dichotomies – life and leadership are always about finding the right balance.  Learn that lesson and you’ll do incredibly well.