Empowerment and leadership: how to frame vulnerability as strength
Zone’s client content director, Laura Goss, recalls how an embarrassing situation left her feeling stronger than ever…
One of my favourite stories about being a woman at work is the time a security guard at Wembley Stadium found himself fingering a bottle of my warm, freshly pumped milk while searching my briefcase. I was there for a pitch and had cleverly pre-pumped my boobs in a Starbucks toilet in order to avoid quietly oozing through my shirt while I was mid-flow (so to speak). As an anecdote it never fails to deliver and I love to tell it – but at the time I was devastated and stumbled into the pitch room feeling weirdly shamed and slightly violated. My boobs may have been gratifyingly leak-free, but it wasn’t my best performance. We’ll get back to this in due course: consider yourself reeled in.
At Zone we have an incredible, well organised community of women, collectively known as Women of Zone. I was interested to learn more about their experiences of feeling empowered and the conditions they need in which to thrive. One theme that particularly struck me was to do with people in power — managers, leaders — showing sincere support in vulnerable moments. Not asking for details, just noticing there was a need and answering it with trust and without judgment. These moments are powerful, they stick with us. Someone observed how empowering this felt — if not at the time, then later on. And it’s true, isn’t it? If you feel heard and respected even when you’re feeling uncertain… that can be powerful and pretty memorable. Once you’ve shown your tenderest spot and found that it’s OK, there’s not much else that can harm you. As a manager and leader myself, I carry this idea with me and encourage the people I work with to frame their vulnerability as strength.
Let’s experiment with taking this a little further. What if wearing that tender, vulnerable part proudly turned out to be deeply empowering and rewarding experience? Let’s rewind a week or two before our man started grappling with my briefcase clips. Technically speaking, I was still on maternity leave. I got the call about the pitch with a few weeks of leave to go. At the time I was probably wearing toast, a nursing bra and watching Tattoo Fixers. I remember feeling a big jolt, what a juxtaposition! Two worlds colliding! But I jumped at the chance to be involved, feeling gratified to be not just remembered, but wanted. I felt nervous too — everything about my life had changed in a few months…would I still be able to call on what I needed?
Reader, I brought a lot of great thinking and ideas to the table. We did the final rehearsal with me on a video call from home (this was 2018! It was sort of novel then) — nine-month-old Chloe chipping in from my hip or my lap being fed a continuous stream of apple rice crackers. Revealing my relatively new mum self in a context which previously had been my well-established work self could have felt uncomfortably exposing, but it didn’t. The tone was light, supportive. My situation was acknowledged and enjoyed — and my contribution was valued all the more because I delivered the goods while simultaneously jiggling a baby.
So what, if anything, does this ramble tell us? I suppose the truth is that even at your most empowered, you can’t always predict and plan for moments that will trip you up and derail you. At the time, you might feel pretty bad. One detail I left out before was a stress nosebleed that appeared from absolutely nowhere — I was utterly overwhelmed by bodily fluids that day. But you take the parts of the experience that are useful and leave the rest behind. Since then, I’ve been untouchable in a pitch situation. Perhaps that poor chap doing his job at Wembley ended up being a tender spot I didn’t realise I had. I’d felt confident, supported and ready right up until that moment. We didn’t win the pitch, but I hope the security guard got a decent anecdote out of the encounter too.
Read the other blogs in our #BreakTheBias series: