When puberty hit, so did acne. I had really bad skin and it made me feel ugly. As I grew older, I learnt to cover it up with makeup. I did not go anywhere without make up on. I still have bad skin, but at least now I am prepared to go to the gym without any makeup on, a small victory.
Being a leader and having influence often involves taking face-saving measures, in order to give the appearance of strength.
The pressure of trying to appear flawless or even infallible is huge and exhausting. Being in a leadership role comes with power and influence, but what is not often talked about is how emotionally vulnerable leaders are.
This is particularly true in Africa, where many people are afraid of admitting that they are sick, tired, or scared as all these are seen as a sign of weakness. The higher they rise, potentially, the longer the fall, and that creates a lot of insecurity.
I am a leader in my own right, and as a friend of mine and fellow leader pointed out to me, very few leaders feel comfortable opening up about the personal challenges of leadership. So few of us are prepared to accept our human frailty. We often say that we are okay when we are not.
The advent of various social media platforms has created additional pressure to be seen to be happy and successful. I had a conversation with other leaders about just how ugly things can get behind the scenes. Faced with my own struggles with vulnerability, I reached out to other leaders who I know in the African Diaspora, and asked them three questions:
- What does power (inner strength and external influence) mean to them?
- What does it mean to be vulnerable?
- And when do they allow themselves to be vulnerable?
Without exception, in one way or another, everyone I asked said that power was having control and vulnerability was losing it.
A friend of mine, “Paul”, confessed to me that he is struggling. He was a very successful businessman earning millions of South African Rands per year, and one day, that was all gone. He had to sell four properties and his luxury car in order to pay his employees’ salaries. He tells me that he knows four executives that have committed suicide this past year alone over personal struggles. He grew up poor, and knows all too well what it means to have no money, a place he felt confident he would never return to again, and yet he finds himself anxiously facing that possibility once more.
Another friend of mine, “Angela”, was a successful international journalist who returned to her home country in Africa to make a difference. The toxic political environment in her country overwhelmed her, and she had to re-evaluate how to use her writing skills for the good of her own community, make ends meet, and take care of her extended family.
Both Paul and Angela tell me that although they are struggling, they have relied on their Christian faith. They trust that all will be well despite their current circumstances. They talked about authenticity being the essence of vulnerability. Stripped of everything that once defined them, they now have a new outlook on life. Paul now wants his legacy to be that when he dies, people will tell his children how kind and considerate he was. Angela’s true identity is as a communicator who bridges the societal divisions, a sister, daughter and a Christian.
In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, vulnerability research expert, Dr. Brene Brown, said that she has found in her research that “perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence”. According to Dr. Brown - “[Perfectionism is] the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen”.
Former American President Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”.
For me, power - however illusory - means having options and having control over them. For me vulnerability means not being able to determine my future. When do I allow myself to be vulnerable, when I go to the gym barefaced? For the rest of the time, my makeup hides the battle scars of standing up for what I believe in, of being an introvert in a very public space, and of being told who and what I am by people only interested in headlines. And yet as leaders, we put ourselves out there because we want to be seen, we want to be heard and we also want to be counted. As Angela says, our contradictions are who we are. Leaders are encouraged to have a thick skin, but even “thick-skinned” people have a soul.
Being vulnerable requires character. As Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved”. Brene Brown suggests that rather than ask “what have I accomplished?” we should ask ourselves, “how can I improve?” That is a lot less pressure on us.
Too often too many of us think that if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable we will lose our power. I am not advocating telling all your secrets to all and sundry. In fact, Brene Brown advises that people should earn the right for you to show them your vulnerabilities. No one, no matter how powerful, is infallible or invincible. As a powerful woman, I have to re-define what success means to me outside of my status or position, barefaced in front of a mirror, powerful yet vulnerable and authentically me.
Linda Kasonde is the President of the Law Association of Zambia and a 2014 Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellow. The views expressed in this article are her own.