Global leadership coach Oona Collins, founder of Potential Plus International, has worked with the world’s biggest companies, as well as entrepreneurs and small business owners. She explains why male bosses need to change.
Hollywood films have a habit of depicting the big powerful male boss as someone who takes no prisoners, shows no weakness and is there to be feared. It is a throwback to an age where society dictated that men are supposed to be seen as strong leaders and have an air of infallibility about them.
Away from the workplace, huge strides have been made in the drive to encourage men to let their guard down, open up and talk. It is something high on the mental health agenda as we as society strive to combat high male suicide rates. In recent years we have seen princes, footballers, rugby stars and actors backing campaign after campaign designed to get men talking and realise that it is okay to not be okay. Society wants men to show vulnerability, because we know it is healthy to do so.
Yet still, when it comes to our professional lives we see female leaders showing vulnerability in a way that we don’t see from male leaders. Male pride is still very much alive and kicking and it is getting in the way of men being able to achieve their full potential. It is only through recognising and accepting your faults and vulnerabilities that you can do what is needed to overcome them and make changes.
I have worked with a couple of very successful male executives recently, both of whom had very different approaches to dealing with what was making them vulnerable.
Firstly was someone whose career was on an upward trajectory, he had just been promoted and he was very self-aware about just how tough he is on himself. He had a clear handle on the fact that to the outside world he is calm and in control, but internally his mind-set can lead to him beating himself up. He appreciated that although that is what drives him to succeed, it can also be exhausting and mentally draining. He came with an open mind and actively sought advice on how he can manage his fear of failure so that he was in control of it, not it in control of him.
One the other side of a coin was a CEO who very almost stumbled at our first hurdle when filling out the answers to some simple but probing questions ahead of starting a programme with me. He was someone who had seniority in both years and experience and who had found himself in limbo as a result of the pandemic. He had been recruited to do a specific job and get a few core deals over the line. He was very close to doing so before Covid-19 struck and his deals were killed off. In his words, “when I looked up from all of it and the landscape looked so barren of opportunity, it made me question myself even more”.
His struggle with answering my initial questions unlocked a much deeper vulnerability that was rooted in more historic issues than the deal ruined by Covid. He had a lack of core confidence and had been carrying around self-doubt for a number of years, something that his successes and skills had managed to mask. When faced with tough situations his tendency was to withdraw and go underground, while quietly working on solutions in an attempt to get things back on track. He told me that “if solutions don’t come quickly, the situation can eat away at me, making it harder to regain my footing and take the initiative again”.
Even small questions about what makes him happy and what roles he enjoys doing, he was finding difficult to answer. He realised that he had a complete lack of clarity around what he really wanted to do, what made him happy at work and what he valued. He found this confusing and disturbing, believing that they were things he should have just been able to reel off answers to.
As we worked through our coaching programme and he undertook various exercises, he started to open up more and more. Eventually we revealed the root of his insecurities and feeling of worthlessness. He confided that there were issues in his marriage and home life that he had been burying and refusing to deal with, but that had left him feeling inadequate. Because he hadn’t allowed himself to be vulnerable and deal with the issues at the time, these feelings had become so ingrained in him that they strayed from his home life to his work life. This self-awareness enabled him to harness his strengths and to create a plan that would influence his success.
Now admittedly it is probably asking too much to expect Hollywood to spend time telling the backstory of what is really going on behind the bravado of its male business leaders. It is however essential that we encourage the men in our own business bubbles to recognise and accept that they most probably do have vulnerabilities and that that is okay. Being vulnerable is being human and being real and that is something that employees are not only willing to accept from their leaders, but it is something they respect.
Dealing with your vulnerability and learning how to manage them can unlock opportunities not just for you, but for those around you. It can drive you on to get that next promotion, or it can give you the strength to make the changes needed in your career and life to enable you to find happiness.