“Being vulnerable makes you relatable.” This is excellent advice for leaders. We’ve all been moved by vulnerable stories from leaders we respect. We learn that Steve Jobs was adopted and never formed a relationship with his biological father. We learn that Oprah grew up so poor her clothing was made from potato sacks.
But on the other hand, the advice to “be vulnerable” can also render leaders utterly lost and confused.
After all, it is a bottomless pit. How does one become vulnerable? What is appropriate to share and what is not? How would one know what is relatable or not? And how much is too much?
As a rule of thumb, I advise clients to share from the realm of “personal but not private.” For example, what is one hobby you pursue passionately? Or, what is something you spend way too much time, money or effort on but have no regrets? “Personal but not private” clears up confusion and sets clients on a productive path. Nevertheless, I’ve had one or two ask, “how do you draw the line? What’s personal but not private, and private but not personal?”
There’s a large gray area in the space between personal and private. So how do you make sure you don’t tell a vulnerable story, in hopes of being relatable, but end up crossing the line into what feels like oversharing, to you or to your audience?
Recently, I’ve been interviewing leaders of family enterprises and learning their personal stories. Inevitably, their personal stories intertwine with their business story and the story of their family. Sometimes this means my interviewees share a family tragedy with me. It is a vulnerable moment. And the whole point of the interview is to be able to share their story with a podcast audience.
How do you navigate sharing someone else’s vulnerable story, and what can this teach us about sharing our own personal stories in business settings?
1. Set Your Intention
Before I interview family business leaders, I make my intentions known to them. “I’m not a reporter looking for dirt,” I tell them, “but I’m not your PR department promoting you either. I’m only looking for the story.”
Setting my intention proved extremely helpful when I was interviewing Adam Farver, the fourth generation chairman of the board at Pella Corporation, and he discussed a devastating family tragedy with me. My intention helped him understand that I would pay due respect to his family’s privacy and not sensationalize the story.
You can set this kind of intention after you are done brainstorming your own stories, too. What’s your goal in telling this story? What is this story really about? Write down your intention and see how well your resulting stories fit your intention. This will guide you as you decide whether to share the story or not.
2. Know Your Duty
A good story involves struggle and conflict, and inevitably, there are strong emotions embedded in that struggle. Do not shy away from the emotion. When there is an inherent emotional quality in your story, that is powerful. But like anything powerful, we have to know how to use the power of those emotions carefully.
Whether it’s a tragedy or an emotional story, the duty of the storyteller is to interrogate herself: how will including any of these stories serve her audience? A great storyteller is like a chef with a three-michelin-star restaurant who also happens to have a Ph.D. in nutrition. She will never feed her audiences highly processed, chemically flavored meals that spike up people’s blood sugar only to be followed by a total crash.
Likewise, a good storyteller isn’t just interested in delivering dramatic content that serves no purpose. A great storyteller thinks about what the audience really needs to know.
Ultimately, I shared the Farver family’s story because the family tragedy has helped inform future generations about why they are not allowed to work in a full-time management capacity for the company.
3. Get Permission
When there are questions about how vulnerable you’re getting, it’s helpful to share the story.
If you’re telling someone else’s story, get their permission on what’s really okay to share. All my interviews are transcribed and shared with guests right away. I ask them to strike out anything they don’t want me to include. This helps assure them that during the interview they can say anything they want and decide later what they don’t want to broadcast.
4. Seek Feedback
If you’re telling your own story and you worry about the level of vulnerability, run it by someone you trust. Be very specific with your feedback request. Does the level of revelation make them squirm and leave them hanging? If so, don’t share it in a business context. If the story merely makes them uncomfortable and yet with a few important take-aways, then you may be on to something!
5. Know Who The Story Belongs To
Sharing the story can be especially helpful when your organization stands to benefit from the story. I often hear major gifts fundraisers say they don’t want to “pawn out” their constituent’s stories. They tell the vulnerable stories of those they serve, and then donors give. I can understand their reluctance. It feels like they’re benefiting from their constituents’ hardship.
This is a time when it’s especially crucial to share the story. Ultimately, the story belongs to the person it happened to. The nonprofit is part of their story—the stories intertwine—and there must be shared agency at the point where they intersect. The nonprofit can become the loudspeaker for their story, but the story belongs to the person it happened to.
6. Pace Yourself
Recounting events is not telling stories.
In Farver’s case, I purposely withheld the tragic part until later in the episode, even though, chronologically, the tragedy happened a long time ago, before Farver became the board chair, and it had long-term consequences that affected Adam’s life. However, I wanted to pace the story in a way that fulfilled my duty to the audience: to tell them what they needed to know at exactly the right time.
So yes, being vulnerable makes you relatable. And being relatable makes you a better leader. But only if you can find a depth of vulnerability that truly serves your audience.
Listen to the finished podcast with Adam Farver of Pella Corporation here.