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Do You Trust Leaders Who Don’t Sweat?

[Guest blogger Sheldon Romer is a Wisdom Works Performance Coach and the one-time founder and CEO of Rudi’s Organic Bakery.]

In the 1980s an antiperspirant company coined the catchy tagline “Never let them see you sweat.” They still employ that same line today — sometimes it seems as if that concept grabbed hold of the ranks of starched-shirt executive leaders and never shook loose. It conjures the old military idea that leaders must always appear commanding and infallible to their “troops,” and can even be found within today’s more relaxed people-centric management styles. That very approach may be a roadblock. Take Harry’s team, for instance:

Sam was a senior executive reporting to Harry. While Sam spoke with utter composure, and indeed always showed up in a spotless, perfectly pressed shirt, he was sweating in those days. He told me: “No one on our team speaks up; no one shares their thoughts and feelings. Meetings don’t feel safe. The atmosphere is heavy.”

Digging deeper, it appeared that Harry, the team leader, was working exceptionally hard to maintain the semblance of invulnerability. He spoke of “his” team (not “our” team). He was quick to blame others; never admitted faults himself. He wouldn’t be caught dead saying “I’m not sure.” Within Harry’s team, this fierce facade of confidence, rather than inspiring loyalty, left a dramatic lack of trust.

Patrick Lencioni, in his incisive book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says that absence of trust in a team comes from a lack of vulnerability by leadership. A lack of vulnerability: it’s a counter-intuitive concept, especially for those who have been swabbing their armpits (and teams) with antiperspirant all these years. But when you think about it, it’s natural for people to sweat; it’s natural for teams to stumble and fret.

Admitting to one’s mistakes, saying “I don’t know, what do you think?,” listening deeply to others, or opening up about the challenges you’re facing are just a few ways to create a productive vulnerability. And that is a great first step to building trust in teams, whole organizations, or any relationship you may find yourself in.

Harry was a command and control guy. Being ex-military, he was comfortable and skilled in its ways. But somehow he knew it wasn’t working. After getting feedback from his coach, Harry cared enough to try and change. He just didn’t know how.

Coaching sessions with Harry focused on reversing his lack of comfort with his own feelings. A sense of “being heard, being listened to” began to ease into his experience. Harry opened up to his doubts and fears. He began to appreciate talking about them — and learning from them.

As Harry developed this awareness, he began to engage with his team from a listening, not command-and-control, perspective. At first the team didn’t know what to make of it. When Harry proposed and led a personal histories exercise, frankly they thought he had flipped out. Soon though, the culture began to shift. Sweat was decreasing; trust was increasing.

Lauren Hutton

1980s leadership ideals, espoused by Lauren Hutton

Specifically, Sam noticed that Harry would admit to mistakes. That led to the team being more open about their own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Don’t get me wrong: this took time — a good six months — to imbed. Vulnerability-based trust starts with shared experiences.

As Harry began to let go of old notions of control, he admitted that he felt lighter, liberated, less afraid, and more courageous (to be vulnerable). The illusion of control was replaced by humility and humanity. The power of interdependence became prevalent. And consequently the team’s trust, commitment, accountability, and results soared. You might say the team found a new antiperspirant: inspired vulnerability.