DFD Coaching


The Intimate Leader

The “intimate leader” sounds like a contradiction in terms or grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit. We all know that communication is key to being an effective leader, but the struggle lies with what type of communication truly makes a leader the most effective. After working with many leaders, I can honestly say it is “intimate communication”. (I must preface my next statements with an apology to the non-traditional males and females out there.) If you are a female, you are probably becoming somewhat intrigued by this concept of leadership intimacy. However, if you are a male, you are most likely about to quickly look for a different article! Don’t leave yet…

Intimacy is usually a term we use when we are talking about love relationships. Intimacy is about depth, connection, vulnerability, and sharing. It can include feelings, laughter, tears, and most importantly, it includes our truth. So what does all of that or any of that have to do with leadership? Everything! Our role as a leader is to inspire, support, coach, mentor, provide the vision and most importantly, gain the true commitment of our employees. We cannot achieve all of that through charisma, intellect or business acumen alone. We also need to be able to touch the hearts of those we wish to lead.

It is time that leaders take off their masks and share a true connection with others. What masks am I referring to? There are many. The mask of “I have no fear”, the mask of “I can do it all”, the mask of “I have no feelings”, and the mask of “I know it all” to name just a few. Bruce Spingsteen sings about masks in his song “Brilliant Disguise”: “So tell me who I see, when I look in your eyes, is that you baby or just a brilliant disguise.”

Why are we so afraid to take off our masks and be seen for who we are? Perhaps we are afraid that without our masks, we will turn around only to find no followers? Or perhaps, we have been so busy figuring out our strategies and our financials that we have no idea who we are without our masks?

I had a client, Sam, who was the Vice President of Marketing of a start-up company in the Bay area. He was very bright and knew his subject matter well and he had good processes in place, but he was having trouble relating well to people. After a couple of coaching sessions, it became apparent that Sam was wearing the mask of “I am the perfect leader and I have it all together.” We started talking about vulnerability and it was not an area he could associate with leadership. Sam associated strength and knowledge and power and direction with leadership. Then I asked him to think about the leader(s) that was the best leader he had worked for and the one he most enjoyed working for and to think about the characteristics of this person. After thinking for a minute or two, Sam said that the characteristics of this person were “easy to talk to, listened and understood, shared information as well as how he felt about things, related to Sam on both a business and personal level, and cared about him not just the results. When Sam looked at his own leadership characteristics, these were not the attributes that best described him. It was not that he didn’t care about people, but he did a pretty darn good job of not showing it! The light bulb went on!

So what does it look like to be an “intimate leader”? Here are some of the key components:

  • Being authentic: taking off the masks and illusions of what you think you should be; showing up as you truly are with your true thoughts and feelings; speaking your truth
  • Being in balance: balancing your focus on both the other person and you (no it’s not all about you!); sharing the “space” so that everyone can express their thoughts, needs, desires; balancing your focus on getting work done (results) with your focus on people
  • Being present: keeping your attention focused in the moment, the here and now, not in your head — thinking and planning, not on the past or future; becoming aware of your body sensations and your feelings and using them to express what is going on for you; becoming aware of what you are noticing in the other person (feelings, etc.) and checking it out
  • Being vulnerable: sharing your feelings, concerns, mistakes; showing your humanness
  • Going deeper: moving below the surface of the conversation by asking powerful questions; getting to the heart of issues; getting to the issue underneath the surface issue
  • Connecting to what matters: discussing what is important, what has meaning and value to others and to you
  • Being understanding and being understood: being empathic, listening beyond the words to the underlying meaning and feelings being expressed; making sure the person knows that you get who they are and what they are saying and feeling; making sure that what your are communicating is being received by the other person in the way you intended it to — asking questions, asking for feedback
  • Trusting yourself and trusting others: trusting that it is okay to be who you are and to express what is true for you in the moment; trusting that what comes from your heart is more real than what comes from your head; trusting that others will appreciate who you are and will not take advantage of your willingness to be open and honest

So armed with these components, it’s time to take a good look at your level of intimacy with your employees, your colleagues, your partners, your stakeholders. Are there any masks you can take off? Are there any of the above areas you can start to explore more to reach a greater level of connection and intimacy in your relationships? As you think about this, if you start to notice a few fears coming up or it starts to feel dangerous in some way, this is a good sign. It means you are treading in important territory and there is room for growth and development in this area. Your success as a leader depends on your successful relationships; and successful relationships depend on your ability to connect at an authentic level, at a level of intimacy. So I’ll end here with a line from another song sung by Lee Ann Womack: “And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance…”

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