I’ve Misused My Vulnerability in Leadership: I Want to Be Liked

The finely knotted lace runner on the side table before me beckons to be touched. It lies under the warm yellow light of the only lamp on in the room. The lace feeds my soul aesthetically, while I listen to the voices of the two women to my right and left. I’m at a listening prayer session at our church’s women retreat.

But this weekend is about to reveal to me that I’ve misused my vulnerability in leadership.

I didn’t want to go to this retreat though I had signed up. I have a busy job as chair of an English department, and I felt cranky facing even more people on the weekend, a crankiness that didn’t dissipate from the first evening until lunch the next day. I told my husband before I left, “I’d rather go on retreat with you and the kids this weekend,” and he responded “I love you too” and sent me off, certain this would be good for my soul.

I had asked the two prayers ministers who sat with me to listen to God about my career. As they prayed, one paused, and said, “I don’t mean to be offensive, but are there any idols you need to confess?”

Closing my eyes to the lace, the words materialize in my mind immediately: “You like to be liked.” It was true. And I am liked, someone at work had said it just a couple months before.

The next day, I attend our early evening church service. In the row before me is a colleague from my university. Before the service starts, we swap stories about our institution, and I find myself oversharing—sounding as if I agree entirely on point that I know there are multiple perspectives.

“You like to be liked” I hear inside myself as the pastor greets us and we sing our first hymn.

Years ago I was a shy faculty member in my late twenties. A counselor told me it was time I started speaking out, and I did. I was surprised to make more friends. One way I speak out is not only to ask questions or give my opinion but to be vulnerable about my mistakes. I also search for a nexus of connection, a similar story or feeling I can share.

In a way,

I have used my vulnerability to build a barrier of safety—if my admittances of mistakes disturb you, if you don’t feel connected to me by an anecdote or shared emotion, then I know in the future I won’t tire myself by fruitlessly attempting to make you like me.

I’m grateful for that counselor who taught me I could be real about myself, but as someone now in a position of leadership, I recognize a pendulum within me that is swinging not back to the quietness of the woman in her twenties but instead to a place in the middle.

“The drama of leadership is hidden vulnerability,” writes Andy Crouch in Strong and Weak. “Sometimes,” he adds, “flourishing comes with invisible vulnerability—especially in leadership. Almost by definition, leaders have evident authority—but almost by definition, they also bear vulnerability that no one else can see. They have access to more complete information than those they lead.”

Part of my role as a chair is to seek the big picture for my department and for my institution. Seeking the big picture I must remain open to multiple perspectives and be willing to listen to them. But this also means that I must shut my mouth and not stoke one perspective by producing a personal story to make a stronger connection with an individual. I’ve potentially misled that person that I’m in wholehearted agreement.

I’m no longer a person who holds her cards close to her chest, and I’ll never go back—because I compartmentalized far too many of my emotions and thoughts and pretended they didn’t exist.

But following the card game idiom, I’m praying now for an ability to know which cards to play and which to keep private. I’m not going to be as liked. But I sense that I’m more often going to appeal to God’s Spirit for telling me “well done.”

Heather Walker Peterson

Heather Walker Peterson

Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.
Heather Walker Peterson