What's a good balance between appropriate transparency and uncomfortable oversharing? I've often wondered this, especially after someone (sometimes me) shares a deep story about herself that leaves everyone wondering what to do with it.
No one likes a plastic person who seems like she is on stage delivering lines—a leader who shares good ideas, but never lets you see her soft underbelly of insecurity and struggle. I've sat in an audience or across the table from someone, just like you have, and thought, I wonder what he is really like, what he really thinks. I wonder what keeps her up at night.
People will admire your strengths as a leader, but they will resonate with your weaknesses. We know people appreciate authenticity that they can learn from, not pretense that builds a façade. People appreciate honest admissions of the times when you made a dumb decision, when you didn't know what to do next, or when you realized you were too harsh or judgmental—and what you learned from those situations. But what about the bigger issues like going through burnout, times of deep insecurity, or a crisis of faith? As a leader, should you share these difficult experiences with those you lead, or should you keep it to yourself? How much should you share, and when should you share it?
These are questions I've struggled with. I've erred on the side of being the plastic professional who tries to hide her mistakes and keep her fears to herself. I've also had that awful moment after sharing something deep that has left others wondering, hmm, I wonder why she shared that. It's a moment we all want to avoid, and I've learned to ask myself four questions to help me determine whether or not it's time to share a deep experience with others.
1. Have I already processed it privately?
It's tempting in a rash moment to process something deep out loud or to use a painful experience as an illustration in a message or talk. But if we haven't talked it over with God and our inner circle first, it can become verbal vomit. If we share something before we've sat with God and processed what it stirred in our heart, we might be cutting short the work he really wants to do in us. After you've done business with God, it's helpful to then process what you've learned with someone who knows you well like your husband, close friend, or mentor. You can ask, "Does it feel to you like I'm dealing with this in a healthy way, or do I have more work to do? Are there things I'm not seeing or addressing, like resentment or angry feelings toward someone else?" This private processing allows us to share in public thoughts and feelings that are fully cooked.
2. Have I given myself time to really come to grips with what I went through?
I admit it, I'm patience-challenged. Waiting drives me crazy. I like to see progress, and I like to see it yesterday. This has sometimes bit me when it comes to going through a deep experience like an extended time of discouragement or a setback that pushed my insecurity buttons. I tend to mistreat myself with the attitude of "get over it and move on." But you can't fast-track yourself through a process. I've found myself sometimes sharing a "lesson" I've learned before I've really learned it. I hadn't given it enough time to seep into my soul and take root. This isn't good for me and it certainly isn't good for the audience with whom I'm sharing. When considering whether or not an experience is ready to share, pause and ask yourself, does this still feel raw? Does God need more space to work? Take time to reflect and spend time in God's Word. Allow sufficient time for it to settle into your soul so you really have something of depth to share when you do.
3. Have I thought about what the audience will gain from hearing my experience?
I once heard Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Church, say that when speaking in public, you should ask yourself "so what?" If I share this experience or personal story in a public setting, how will I answer the "so what" for the listeners? What will the audience gain? Could I share something that brings hope to someone going through the same situation? Are there action steps or strategies that they can consider? Is there something they can resonate with that will connect them to God, or is it all about me? Am I just sharing this to dump my feelings or could it really be helpful to someone else? While there are definite times you need to unload what's bothering you to a close confidante or friend, that time usually isn't in front of a larger audience who doesn't know you well. I've learned that if I can't easily identify what could be helpful from what I'm about to share, I'm not ready to share it.
4. How will sharing it affect others who were involved in the situation?
I was sitting in a marriage seminar with my husband listening to a couple share a painful story when it happened: I started to itch. The husband was telling a story about his wife that was making her uncomfortable. We knew she was uncomfortable because it was written all over her face. Oh please stop, I thought as I suppressed the urge to run up on the platform and cover his mouth with my hand. My heart ached for his wife, and I wondered if she wasn't tempted to cover his mouth as well! But he didn't stop. He forged on, sharing details of their experience that made us all squirm and wish for a quick ending.
The experience made me think (with regret) about the times I had done the same thing—when I had not considered how sharing my experience or story would make someone else feel as they heard the words come out of my mouth. I remember a time I shared a personal story with a college group about when my husband and I were dating, and I hadn't asked my husband first. He was surprised and embarrassed to hear it at the same time the audience did. Now I try to remind myself to get permission from others involved in the story before I share, and to consider how it might make the audience feel. It's great to ask yourself if you're sharing needless details that will only bring embarrassment. If so, let them go. What may not be oversharing for me may well be too many private details for someone else and push my story past the point of being helpful. If you are unsure, run what you will share past your inner circle of family and friends to see if it incites any "itching."
Early in my leadership experience, I avoided sharing about myself out of fear of what people might think. I was afraid to say "I don't know" when a decision was expected of me. I often clipped my leadership potential with my insecurity. Through the years, I've come to realize this isn't what God wants from me. He wants me to be open and transparent and invite people to see what he is doing in my life. But he also wants me to use wisdom in what I share and when I share it. I'm thankful for the lessons he's shown me.
How about you? What guidelines have you learned to use to help you become a healthy, transparent leader?