I’ve been inspired to write this article by something I heard Brené Brown say recently (if you’re not familiar with Brené’s work, I’d recommend looking her up on YouTube as she has some very interesting and thought-provoking things to say on leadership. The strapline on her website sums it up pretty neatly: ‘Keeping it awkward, brave and kind’). The phrase she used that caught my ear was that leaders need to have ‘a strong back and a soft front’. This requirement for both steeliness and empathy is perhaps one of the hardest aspect of leadership to master, and knowing when and how to show either our robustness or our vulnerability is a daily challenge.

A sense of belonging

But before we get into the skill of knowing whether to show our hard or soft side in any given situation, every leader must first get comfortable with themselves. Having an honest understanding of ourselves and acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses is essential but, more than this, we must accept them, and love and value ourselves for the person we are. Brené also talks about the need to say,

“I belong to me, and I like me very much.”

Humans’ innate need to belong has driven the development of our species into an organised society, with each individual being a part of a variety of groupings (family, friends, businesses, charities, common interests and so on). The part we too often skip though is developing a sense of self-belonging. Many of us feel uncomfortable with such introspection, but I agree with Brené that, for leaders in particular, this is an essential step to give us the deeper confidence and self-assurance we need in order to practise hard and soft leadership.

A strong back

Browsing through our blog you will probably find more articles about the ‘soft front’ of leadership than you will about the ‘strong back’, perhaps because the so-called softer skills leaders need – such as compassion, listening, connection – are considered to be the more challenging to develop. We like to think that all leaders are strong, but the reality is that inside we are all human, with the same insecurities and doubts as everyone else.

The moments when we need to show our strength and grit can be the most difficult: making decisions (especially when stuck between a rock and a hard place), managing tricky situations (whether financial, legal or ethical), responding to crises or factors which are out of our control. When the buck stops with us and everyone is looking for guidance and reassurance, we must have a strong back even if we’re quaking inside. True leadership comes to the fore when we have to make a call which is at great personal cost to ourselves.

A soft front

Showing vulnerability was, until relatively recently, considered a leadership no-no, but in today’s workplace it is not just possible but desirable. The pandemic accelerated the move towards compassionate leadership and there is a growing body of evidence that leaders who are approachable and relatable enhance corporate culture and workplace cohesion. We believe that listening is the first pillar of leadership and the ability to connect with others is the cornerstone of employee engagement.

Opening ourselves up is far from easy though, and getting the nuance right is everything. If a colleague is struggling and comes to us for support, one way of making them feel more comfortable might be to reveal an aspect of our own vulnerability, but stepping across the line into over-sharing is problematic. We want to appear human, but not hopeless. Picking our audience is key, and often it’s in one-to-one or small group situations that it can be most effective and appropriate.

My colleague @Liz Babb wrote an excellent piece on the challenge of authentic leadership some time ago, which is well worth revisiting.

Maintaining the balance

Just as Goldilocks found when testing out the bears’ beds, getting the balance right mostly requires leaders to be not too hard and not too soft. But in high stakes moments, we must be prepared to go to extremes to do what is right, whether hardening our resolve or letting our guard down.

As ever, I’d welcome your thoughts and experiences, and am always available to support you on your leadership journey.

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