I don’t play poker, but maybe I should. I’ve got the face for it.
I developed my “poker face” early in life, but my leadership roles have helped me to perfect it. My ability to keep my emotions off my face—and to maintain a steady exterior—has seen me though many sticky situations. Like any skill, this is a tool I can use for good. My emotional control has granted me time to cool off when I otherwise might have blown up at someone. It has kept me from exposing weaknesses to people who might have exploited them to hurt me or my employer. It has helped me inspire in others a sense of confidence they might not otherwise have felt.
But in other ways, exercising this skill is like wearing armor at the beach: it does more harm than good. It protects me from threats that don’t exist. It prevents me from enjoying some of life’s greatest gifts. It makes me feel unknown and unaccepted. It actually becomes a liability. Sure, the poker face protects me from the vulnerability of letting others know when I feel overwhelmed, inadequate, confused, or simply sad. But it also keeps me from the normalizing discovery that others feel the same way. And it keeps me from showing when I’m happy, excited, and grateful.
The ultimate effect of such armor is that it keeps other people at a distance. And as a leader, it keeps me from communicating to others just how much they mean to me.
I mentioned earlier that I developed this emotional control early in life. So the pressure of leadership has not made me this way. But my experiences in leadership have reinforced my feeling that I am not allowed to be weak, needy, or confused. I suspect I’m not the only leader who feels as if she’ll be letting people down if she admits that she can’t coolly handle everything life throws her way. And perhaps the pressure is especially strong for Christian leaders to act as if we have it all together, we’re better people than we are, and we know which direction to go. If this is true, no wonder so many of our heroes fall: we develop the habit of pretending we’re something other than what we are. It’s frightening, really.
A few years ago, I came to the realization that I was tired of wearing this armor all the time, and I wanted to stop. It was as if I finally sat up on my beach towel (we’re back to that armor-on-the-beach metaphor) and realized, “Hey, I’m wearing armor. It’s really hot out here and everyone else is having a good time, and I’m sitting here sweating in my armor. I’d really like to go for a swim instead.”
So I began to shed the armor and to feel the sun on my skin. I practiced taking emotional risks and found they had rewards. And then, nearly a year ago, I left an executive position with a Christian organization and realized my sense of self-protection loosened even further.
Because I realize the armor is necessary, I haven’t dumped it. I plan to keep it around for battle. But I’m learning to behave as if I’m at the beach—and not in battle—most of the time. Now, I’m not crazy about running around in my bathing suit, even at the beach. So for the sake of keeping things moving in a positive direction, let’s say I’ve traded in the armor for shorts and a T-shirt and a nice pair of flip-flops—the kind that don’t give you blisters on the top of your feet.
After dipping my toes in the water, so to speak, I’ve graduated to wading. I’m becoming a more open and authentic person. I’m not talking about turning into a gusher, spewing my emotions all over anyone within earshot. And I’m not talking about falling apart in the face of a challenge. I’m talking about becoming honest with myself and with God about my emotions, my needs, and my weaknesses. As I do so, I can embrace God’s grace and his gifts and live—and lead—without shame. And the funny thing is, if I can manage to be more consistently open, resting in the truth of God’s grace, I think I might actually become a better leader. After all, who would you rather follow: the girl wearing armor at the beach, or the one who actually could swim? Everyone knows armor sinks.
This is adapted from a blog post that first appeared here on Christianity Today’s Gifted for Leadership.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.