leaders looking under the hoodWe’ve all had the unenviable experience of dealing with leaders who lack integrity. At the very least, that can be frustrating and demoralizing. 

On the other hand, great leaders have the ability to inspire us, and nothing is more inspiring than a leader who walks their talk

The invitation

In 2005, I was invited to speak at a global sales conference. I don’t often get the opportunity to do last-minute gigs, but that is exactly what this was. An executive I was mentoring at the time recommended me. The gig was taking place at the end of the week when I had a rather unusual opening in my schedule. Since synchronicity was at work, I took the opportunity when the call came. Because I didn’t have my usual prep time, I only knew the most basic of information about this company—that it was a global sales conference. 

When I arrived, I was introduced to the global sales team leaders, who each ran their own division in different countries, and to the CEO, Graham Kill. Graham had the poise of a leader and was obviously respected by the people around him. He seemed both grounded and approachable. I took an instant liking to him. 

Graham approached me after I had finished my presentation to thank me. He then invited me to join the team for dinner that night. I was honored and accepted his invitation. As I entered the restaurant, Graham motioned for me to sit next to him. Everyone was in a great mood, so dinner was lots of fun for all. 

During dinner, Graham and I got to know each other better. We shared some meaty discussion about a range of subjects including leadership in general as well as personal leadership styles. A point of real rapport happened when we spoke of how the foundation of great leadership was reliant upon self-knowledge and the necessity to lead one’s self. 

Graham is playful but also cool, calm, and collected, with a James Bond-esque demeanor. Being a true leader, he had done self-inquiry; and, as a quality leader, he understood there’s always another level of depth. 

Learning to be vulnerable

He asked about the strategies and processes I offered. We spoke about how I have worked with companies who were discovering the power of vulnerable leadership in generating fierce loyalty in their own teams. I told him about my Personal Excellence Architecture for Leaders process, which requires an individual to be with me exclusively, without interruption of any kind, for up to twenty-four hours. The process demands a level of open vulnerability with which most people are unfamiliar. Following that initial session, there’s six months of mentoring and coaching for integration. 

As you can imagine, that level of intensity alone is enough to sort out those who are genuinely committed from those who are merely interested. It clearly shows which true leaders are all about action and which are just “the tire kickers” who have a myriad of reasons why they can’t do it. 

Within a week, Graham called and said, “Let’s do this thing.” Within a month, we were meeting to review his personal excellence architecture for leaders. I, of course, won’t go into the specifics of the process, and I can’t share what Graham discovered. 

What I can tell you is that Graham became both deeply aware and extremely mindful of the beliefs and thought processes that he’d been having and the behaviors he’d been exhibiting that were either limiting or expanding him. He understood what was creating distance and disengagement as well as creating connection and engagement with others. Now he had the tools to use to move toward the latter. 

Bringing down the silos

The following summer, Graham brought us to Europe to work with his executive leadership team. This would be my opportunity to see the true level of integration Graham had applied around those he was leading. In the lead-up months before, Graham and I had discussed the outcomes he was looking for. Right at the top of the list was something so many leaders in his position face challenges with: silos. 

As a company grows, it’s natural to go from everyone wearing multiple hats and communicating about everything, to the development of departments and teams. As exciting as this can be, one of the most common challenges is that internal departments become adversarial, in essence, building silos around themselves. As a result, departments stop communicating with each other. Graham had made it crystal clear that he wanted me to find a way to pull the silos down and open up fluid communication between departments and the leaders that ran them. 

As we set up that morning, Graham and I caught up.

He asked me, “What can I do to assist so that this training will have the best possible outcome?”

My answer was short and to the point, “Leaders go first! So when asked to be vulnerable and open up, leaders go first and lead by example.” 

Without hesitation, Graham agreed to do so, and then did it. In doing so, he created the safe place his executive team needed to embrace the power of vulnerable leadership. People began opening up about the challenges they faced with their teams, with each other, and most importantly, with themselves.

This was not about finger pointing at others or self-berating; it was about vulnerability and sincere accountability. 

When a team member struggled with another team member’s way of being or leadership style, instead of making the other person wrong, the first person voiced it as their own challenge and accepted responsibility for resolving it. 

At the end of the five-day retreat, the silos were down. Each person felt like they genuinely knew their team members. Certain team members—who had resigned themselves to the idea they would never get along with a particular team member—found themselves connecting deeply with that person, feeling trust and respect for them. 

Caring, Compassion and Vulnerability

The capacity for genuine caring, compassion, and vulnerability will define the leaders of tomorrow. 

One of the major roles of a leader is to inspire and motivate people, but that inspiration will wear off faster than a fake tan in a bubble bath if the leader hasn’t had the courage to go through—and continue to go through—a process of self-inquiry. They must be willing to look under their own hoods. 

Graham was willing to get comfortable being uncomfortable as leader. He was also willing to step forward into the power of vulnerability with his team and me. This willing made the training a raving success.  


Because genuine courage is contagious. 

Key Points to Remember

  • Great leaders go first! They bypass “interested” and go straight to “committed!”
  • Vulnerability and accountability are best friends
  • Get comfortable being uncomfortable
  • Self-knowledge is the cornerstone of emotionally intelligent leadership
  • Commit to becoming brilliant at working out why you are actually upset about   any given situation. (Alternatively, get help in learning how to do so.)
  • Emotionally intelligent leaders don’t play the blame game, nor do they let rambling, negative self-talk take control of their minds
  • Make finding your drivers, motives, and moods an adventure.

Courage is not only inspiring, it’s contagious.

What do you think about leaders going first?

Dov Baron works with leaders in creating teams that become fiercely loyal. He was named by Inc magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference. His latest book is Fiercely Loyal: How High Performing Companies Develop and Retain Top Talent.

Image source before quote:  morgueFile.com