Armor at the Beach

I don't play poker, but maybe I should. I've got the face for it.

I developed my "poker face" early in life, but my leadership roles have helped me to perfect it. My ability to keep my emotions off my face - and to maintain a steady exterior - has seen me though many sticky situations. Like any skill, this is a tool I can use for good. My emotional control has granted me time to cool off when I otherwise might have blown up at someone. It has kept me from exposing weaknesses to people who might have exploited them to hurt me or my employer. It has helped me inspire in others a sense of confidence they might not otherwise have felt.

But in other ways, exercising this skill is like wearing armor at the beach: it does more harm than good. It protects me from threats that don't exist. It prevents me from enjoying some of life's greatest gifts. It makes me feel unknown and unaccepted. It actually becomes a liability. Sure, the poker face protects me from the vulnerability of letting others know when I feel overwhelmed, inadequate, confused, or simply sad. But it also keeps me from the normalizing discovery that others feel the same way. And it keeps me from showing when I'm happy, excited, and grateful.

The ultimate effect of such armor is that it keeps other people at a distance. And as a leader, it keeps me from communicating to others just how much they mean to me.

So why am I writing about this in the context of leadership? I mentioned earlier that I developed this emotional control early in life. So the pressure of leadership has not made me this way. But my experiences in leadership have reinforced my feeling that I am not allowed to be weak, needy, or confused. I suspect I'm not the only leader who feels as if she'll be letting people down if she admits that she can't coolly handle everything life throws her way. And perhaps the pressure is especially strong for Christian leaders to act as if we have it all together, we're better people than we are, and we know which direction to go. If this is true, no wonder so many of our heroes fall: we develop the habit of pretending we're something other than what we are. It's frightening, really.

I have come to the realization that I'm tired of wearing this armor all the time, and I'd like to stop. It's as if I have finally sat up on my beach towel (we're back to that armor-on-the-beach metaphor) and realized, "Hey, I'm wearing armor. It's really hot out here and everyone else is having a good time, and I'm sitting here sweating in my armor. I'd really like to go for a swim instead."

May 28, 2008 at 10:30 AM

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