Lion-Hearted Leaders

by Judith Umlas

this blog post originally appeared at ATD.

Why is courage necessary to tell a colleague know how much you value him, the difference he makes on your team, and his unique contributions? Shouldn’t such acknowledgments take humility? Possibly. Generosity? Perhaps. Attentiveness? Yes. But courage also is critical because a profound, heartfelt, and generous acknowledgment demands vulnerability.

Being vulnerable is something that many people fear at all costs—it means revealing oneself in sometimes awkward or uncomfortable ways. I heard a story from one of my students about a senior executive who was told he had to lay off three people in his department. He was devastated, and after the reduction in force was complete, he gathered his remaining employees. He became deeply emotional and told each person how much she meant to him, the department, and the organization. He also acknowledged those who had left and gave others the opportunity to share what their departed peers meant to them. There was a profound sense of gratitude toward this vulnerable leader; each of his employees would have done anything to make his job easier and reach their team goals as a smaller unit.

Brené Brown, researcher and author, writes about inspired leadership through vulnerability and the courage it takes to be real, to allow our humanity to show, and to let people know how much they matter. Check out one of her very inspiring blog posts here.

It’s relatively easy for us to say “thank you” for an action our employees have taken, such as “thanks for getting that report in early.” It is much harder to say: “You have a unique talent that no one else can fill.” What if that person decides to take her “unique talent” elsewhere, you might think, or what if she asks for a salary raise because you told her how much you value her? You must recognize your own vulnerability and the potential negative results you worry about that could result from this acknowledgment. I say: Take the chance!

I am still glowing from receiving a particularly meaningful comment from my CEO recently. He said, “If no one else in the company can do something, give it to Judy” (with numerous examples of what I had accomplished in the past). I can’t begin to tell you how incredible that acknowledgment made me feel! And as a result, I recommitted to completing difficult tasks on an even more regular basis on behalf of my company. It’s a challenge for me, and pretty scary, but I want to prove my boss completely right!

For some, an acknowledgment of who they are rather than what they do could make the difference between staying and leaving an organization. I often talk to good people in wonderful jobs at great companies that simply leave because they don’t feel appreciated. Or they stay and perform at minimum levels because they are not valued. But as leaders, we want people who are motivated and inspired on a daily basis to contribute their maximum and to want to stay with us forever.

Let’s never lose sight of the fact that your acknowledgment on a personal level could be making a profound, life-altering difference for one of your many stakeholders. I will leave you with this very dramatic and true story of the difference one acknowledgment made. It is a powerful example of the courage it takes to deliver a heartfelt acknowledgment when it isn’t one’s natural way of communicating, and the difference such an acknowledgment can make.

This week, acknowledge at least three people in a much more profound, generous, and heartfelt way than you are accustomed to doing currently. If you feel scared or embarrassed, then you know that you are being courageous and are on the right track. If finding all three acknowledgment recipients at work demands too much courage right away, feel free to use your growing competency on a parent, a child, a former teacher, or a service provider. Please report a few of your results in the comments section on this blog post; I’d love to hear about your experiences.