Servant Leaders Risk Embarrassing Communication

by Quentin Schultze

A fine friend and skilled speaker landed in a dreadful situation. He had agreed to address a convention of toastmasters—persons who lead local public-speaking clubs where members overcome common speaking fears and practice effective speaking techniques.

When he arrived a few minutes early for the event, he met with his friend who had arranged the speech. He discovered that the audience was not toastmasters, but postmasters—persons who run local post offices.

He frantically tried to organize a speech in his head while his friend introduced him. Then he took the stage, mic in hand, alone with the whole audience of postmasters peering directly at him. What could he possibly do?

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He relinquished his façade. He explained that he had planned a speech for the wrong audience. That he didn’t even know what postmasters actually do. That he was thoroughly unprepared.

Then he spoke from the heart about what he knew intimately. He told stories about his and his close friends’ loneliness. About their fears. About the stifling lack of meaning in their work.

My friend’s message was simple but profound: we are all first and foremost human beings, not workers. We share a common humanity. We experience fear as well as hope.

Then he thanked the postmasters for the opportunity to share his thoughts and feelings. He received a long, standing ovation. The wounded storyteller had connected with the wounded postmasters.

When we put on masks we deprive others and ourselves of the shared benefits of genuine community.

But opening up is not easy. We are fearful of what others will think about us. It’s easier to posture and pretend.

Of course we can be too candid. Like some airline passengers, leaders can spend far too much time talking about themselves. Learning appropriate self-disclosure is essential. We need to reveal enough personally to connect with others in our shared humanity, but not so much that our conversations and presentations become self-performed soap operas.

For most of us, however, the problem is excessive fear of rejection. Once we begin taking off our masks, we expose our inner selves to others’ inspection. The risks seem daunting.

Admitting that our masks make us frauds is essential for all leaders who seek to communicate authentically. Only then can we begin to construct genuine selves that are worthy of what others might think about us in our best moments. The result is not another façade. It’s a genuine person who can laugh at being miss-prepared for a speech and yet connect with the audience as fellow humans.

Once I was in the audience when my friend who had spoken to the postmasters was speaking to another group. After his presentation he came up to me unexpectedly with a signed copy of his latest book. I was deeply honored. I quickly looked at the signature page of the book while he was smiling at me and noticed that he had misspelled my name. What should I do?

I couldn’t ask him for a new copy, properly endorsed. I could affirm our shared humanity. “Bill,” I said, “thanks so much. The fact that you misspelled my name is about the highest honor I could receive from you. Neither of us needs to save face, because of your open heart. I love you.” We laughed. And hugged. And laughed some more.

Why are you fearful of being open with others? What are you covering up?

Note: This essay is excerpted from my book Communicate Like a True Leader: 30 Days of Life-Changing Wisdom, available from Amazon.

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