It’s Okay to Show a Little Weakness

You know, every once in awhile you stop and reflect on formative moments that helped to shape you into what you’ve become. I’m not really sure why but today I remembered a moment from my childhood that I found particularly significant and I thought I’d share it with you.

When I was a kid, my parents got me piano lessons. Since no child in my town who actually took piano lessons was exempt from competition, every year I was entered in the Kiwanis Festival where I would perform for a room full of strangers to take home various paper prizes (certificates – not money – I wish).

piano practiceI never really grew to enjoy the competition. Oh there were moments…my piano teacher secretly pitted me and another student against one another. She told me for years, “Cathy could do scales twice that fast a year younger than you. Cathy’s a better person. Cathy got to live in Paris. When Cathy shits her pants there’s peace in a third world country. Cathy, Cathy, Cathy.” It should come as no surprise that I despised her and delighted in beating her at every opportunity (Cathy if you’re out there reading this, confession time: my nickname for you was “Grimy” because it went so well with your surname).

Well, it turns out the whole time she was telling Cathy, “Geoff’s arpeggios are SO much more fluid than yours. Why can’t you be more like him? Geoff, Geoff, Geoff.” I know my teacher’s long dead now, and she was a nun, and you shouldn’t speak ill, but seriously: what a bitch!

Anyway, I digress. The very first year I went out for competition, I couldn’t have been more than 9 years old. In fact I think I was probably only 8. On one occasion that year, after I finished my performance and returned to my contestant’s chair, I made an exaggerated relieved face just as I sat down. Apparently the entire audience saw the face I made and they all started to laugh.

Well, I was horribly embarrassed. All these people were laughing at me. Had I been ten years older I’d’ve been looking for the bucket of pig blood over my head. My mother was in the audience that day, but it would be close to a half an hour before the competition ended and I could seek solace. So I had to sit there feeling embarrassed and ashamed that I inadvertently revealed an emotion to a room full of people and they thought it was funny. That was a really, really long half hour.

I received a lot of congratulations, and I believe an award of some kind. Many of the people in the audience made a point of coming up to tell me what I great performance I’d made. It was all very confusing. When I finally got to see my mom, I asked her why everybody laughed at me, and then were really nice to me. She said, “they weren’t laughing at you. They all knew exactly how you must have felt and they were just glad for you that you were done.”

It was that very moment, so like a Polaroid in my mind, that a light went on in my head. Everyone is afraid; everyone is vulnerable. And when you give others a glimpse of your own vulnerability, they can recognize that trait in themselves and offer unspoken support. It’s a crazy paradox: weakness actually makes you stronger through the sharing of it. That’s not to say it would have been okay if I’d given a crappy performance…I still had to do a good job. But knowing that I was a human being made the audience appreciate my performance all the more. It was kind of a big epiphany for an eight year-old (although this is the first time I’ve ever tried to articulate it).

As I grew into a professional, I never forgot that lesson. I don’t run around telling everybody how weak I am or complain about how hard my job is. But there are moments (and there are signs) where it’s exactly right to give others on your team a sneak look into your private relief, or trepidation, or cynicism. The result is an unspoken bond of recognition that results in far stronger support and loyalty than you could ever get through direct authority. Believe me–the loyalty of others is a very powerful thing, and it protects you during the times when you need it most. But loyalty – genuine loyalty – is not a right of your position, but a privilege that comes from giving others the gift of the real you.

I think if my mother had answered any other way, that moment would have been lost and I probably would have locked myself in my room and refused to come out until I was twelve. But she didn’t, and that particular value became a part of who I am.

Funny, the things you remember.

Incidentally, Cathy, if you’re out there, I don’t call you “Grimy” anymore.

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • Pingback: Talking Work » Blog Archive » It’s Okay to Show a Little Weakness()

  • Absolutely beautiful. I’m glad you shared it. And totally true. I’ve met some really big and famous people, and they are always very insecure at some point or another. Your piece definitely explains it well, plus it deals with some interesting memories and puts us there with you.

    Great work, Geoff. Keep playing.

  • Awesome! Nice to see someone actually put this into words. I agree that it is imperative to be human (and show whatever weaknesses may come with that) when working with people. Trust is something that has to be earned, and, unfortunately, not done easily. When people can relate with you it becomes much easier.

    Nice post!

  • Chris, thanks so much for the kind words!! πŸ™‚ It was a total afterthought from a friend who said “hey you should see what Chris thinks of this one”. LOL I’m so pleased you liked it! πŸ˜€

  • Thanks very much, Brandon! πŸ™‚ Putting this one into words was weird for me as I’d never tried to articulate that particular memory before. Glad you enjoyed the post! πŸ™‚

  • Well, looks like I won brownie points with this. My mother just e-mailed me and I thought I’d save it for posterity on this post. Perhaps I get lasagna next time I go home. πŸ™‚

    —————-

    Wow, thank you, Geoff.

    You have no idea how hard being a parent is and always wondering if you are doing or saying the right thing. Reading this article just now has given me a good feeling. It makes me feel like I did something good, not to mention, right.

    As a management trait Kudos like this would be immensely powerful. As a comment about your mother’s parenting skills, at least one of them, it is priceless!

    Thank you.

    Love,
    Mom
    x xxxx xxx

  • Geoff

    Been a while! This article captures so much of what we are feeling as kids but yet also as adults. The perceived vs reality. The perception that people laughed at you instead of with you is sometimes the illusion we create in our heads as behaviorally we tend to go to the insecure as opposed to the secure. This could be that when we do go to the secure, we are deemed cocky and arrogant (of course as a child we would be more obnoxious).

    We all have weaknesses and it is sometimes the subtle things that bring them out and make them not weaknesses but more of a “me too” which is so incredibly powerful. In reading this, I saw a young man who finished and walked away and with is emotion showed everyone that he gave it his all. That Geoff, we can all relate to.

    Oh and my sincerest apologies for not being a good community member and formally introducing you to my friend Chris Brogan. He is a great guy and so happy that he found this article. That makes me happy that you got the recognition from a good friend of mine.

  • Geoff, thank you for this post – and to @jackiecameron1 for drawing my attention to it.

    Just this morning I was thinking that the best inspirational communicators (usually not the ones who set out to be ‘inspirational’) are those who manage to convey their vulnerability without milking it. They are the ones who get you to think ‘I could do that’, instead of ‘I wish I could do that’.

  • Thanks very much for the kind words, Malcolm! πŸ™‚ Your comment made me think a bit. “I wish I could do that”…it’s kind of divisive isn’t it? It says, “that person’s better than me somehow”. The problem with that, of course, is we put them on a pedestal, and when they betray us by being human (which they must inevitably do), we tend to be just as fast to tear them down.

    “I could do that” is far more inspiring and likely to create something new. But it requires recognition of some shared trait. If a leader hides everything, that won’t happen.

    Thanks for the comment! πŸ˜€

  • Heya Suzanne, how you been? Great to hear from you and I’m glad you liked the article! πŸ˜€

    I think you’re right, that each of us tends towards the insecure, at least to ourselves. When we present that we’re cocky and arrogant, it’s often a misplaced case of masking insecurity to demonstrate an air of professionalism. LOL

    I can think of so many times over my career when presented with an utterly ridiculous problem, and as I sized it up everybody would be looking at me, “can he fix it?” On one hand, you want others to believe you’re up to the challenge, on the other you know you’re in for a bumpy ride. I think it’s okay to communicate both without saying, “OMG this is gonna be haaaaarrrrrrd and I think I peed my pants”. πŸ˜€

    Thanks again, Suzanne!

  • Haha, what a bitch indeed! πŸ™‚

  • Pingback: Leadership Lessons From One Celeb «Papercut Edge()

  • William

    Geoff,
    This story is on of the most beautiful things I have heard from you. It points to one of the essential aspects of effective leadership. As leaders we need to remember that empathy is definitely a two-way street. Congratulations.

    From
    I think you know.

Real Time Analytics

YAY! YOU FOUND ME!

My name is Geoff. I write about project management pretty regularly. From time to time, I also make tools and templates to give away.

You can keep on top of these freebies in one of two FREE ways:


1

Subscribe to my RSS feed. Every time I publish an article, it will magically appear in your reader.


2

Join my community. A couple times a month, you'll get a digest of my latest articles. You ALSO get my FREE ebook, Nine Destructive Behaviours.

Either way, you'll never miss a post! How cool is that? (Psst...if you'd rather just hide me, click the tab again. No one has to know.)