The Wall

I recently heard a Chief Medical Officer describe the deep hurt that is felt after an unsuccessful pediatric code, when a baby loses its fight for life in the emergency room. He made the comment that the attending doctor must be a wall – who must wall off grief, sadness anger or any other emotion. The doctor is the role model, to whom everyone else is looking up, and if he or she “breaks” in any way, it will be difficult to keep the others in the ER going. And there is always another patient who needs the doctor’s undivided attention immediately.

A week or so earlier, I heard the CEO of a Fortune 250 company comment about having had a really lousy day sometime back. He described the personal pain he felt when a trusted friend and colleague announced he was leaving the business. The purpose here is not to compare which situation was worse, as that is not relevant. It is to bring forth a couple of lessons brought forth by both examples.

First – as the REM lyric reminds us, everybody hurts sometime. Regardless of title, level or salary, no one is immune to the pain that life deals out on occasions. You no doubt know the feeling. And even a whopping paycheck does not reduce the feelings. Never assume that is does.

Second, executives are often conditioned to believe they must always be the wall. They cannot show emotion or they will appear to be weak. And we all know that organizations need strong leaders, especially at the top.

Here is the dilemma. Although we seek strength in leaders, we also know that it is easier to trust people who show vulnerability, who open themselves up to us and others a bit. When we see the human side of another, it provides a more complete picture of who the person really is. This vulnerability provides a connection of sorts, and allows us to add a layer to the relationship. It can be especially important for senior people, as they can more easily be perceived only as heartless profiteers. Most are not.

As a leader, you may sometimes face this tightrope, between needing to be more like a wall of strength, and showing some vulnerability. It may not be as easy as it sounds, given that everyone is supposed to always be wearing their game faces. Since I am not a therapist, I cannot comment about the physical, psychological or relationship consequences which may result by walling off everything. About the only advice I can share is this. First, always be thoughtful and intentional about the decisions you make in how you deal with this dilemma. Next, let go of the wrong assumption that strength and vulnerability are polar opposites, which compete against each other. Consider how each depends upon the other, and that true trust requires both. And finally – and above all – be you. It is hard to trust, and follow, a mask or facade.

Share Your Thoughts