Leaders today are pressured to be ‘vulnerable’ and yet have little time for ‘self-care.’ Pierrette Masimango, a Communication Strategist for Uniity, connects the two imperatives: “Being vulnerable and managing to communicate while being yourself is a powerful form of self-care.”
Pierrette leans forward, remembering a moment with an executive leader who needed to update a headshot. She tells me: During the planning stage and the routine exchange of logistics – which photographer, where would it be shot, when – Pierrette noticed how visibly uncomfortable her client was getting. Fidgeting, breathing heavily, the client (let’s call her Jane) seemed to grow more distressed the more plans of the photoshoot took shape.
Midway through the conversation with the client, Pierrette had an instinct.
“It’ll be okay,” she told Jane, testing ground. “We all hate seeing photos of ourselves. We’ll get through this together.”
Cue a sudden outpour of relief, conversation, and connection. As Pierrette sensed an underlying emotional issue camouflaged as “photoshoot anxiety,” Jane expressed she hated getting her photo done so much that she was using a 10-year-old headshot. She “didn’t trust photographers” due to a poor experience in the past, and, at the center of it all, she was becoming particularly short with her comms team, which stemmed from her insecurities around aging and what vulnerabilities that planning a new photo was evoking.
That’s it, Pierrette thought.
Moments like these, bewildering but ultimately rewarding experiences with clients, happen for Pierrette all the time in her strategist role. In her photography practice outside of this role, she’s similarly had clients come in apprehensive and leave elated, including some on our own team. I’m certain that this skill – listening to and artistically working through people’s insecurities – is why there’s a palpable warmth to every conversation we have, an undercurrent of careful listening that pulls in insightful questions and ideas and immerses you into the emotional core of whatever you’re discussing. I’m equally certain that her art of listening, honed from her photography practice, is why she excels so much in her role at Uniity helping clients like Jane.
Let’s backtrack. Working with mid-sized organizations, Pierrette strategizes with businesses that have little to no resources for employee communication. This is an intense and lonely position for leaders as they try to navigate and survive the onslaught of obstacles that come with growing a business, competing in vast professional arenas, and managing finances, operations, and people – all at once. Communicating to their employees is, therefore, among the last thing on their lists.
“It’s not an afterthought,” Pierrette says. “It’s an after-afterthought.” This burdens them with stress – leaders want to do communication well, but they don't have the experience or time to give it the care it needs.
As she fulfills this missing piece in their organization, she sees leaders opening up for the first time, sharing struggles they can’t share with anyone else. And with these moments, like the one she had with Jane, she has distilled a powerful insight that animates her work and relationships:
It’s a form of self-care to be authentic.
“Leaders often perform ‘Leadership,’” she says. “As a result, they behave, present themselves, and communicate in ways that they believe a leader should. But this cloak doesn't always fit them. It may not be their personality. It's not authentic. And performing leadership can take a toll, especially mentally.”
She continues: “To be self-aware enough, to go against this mold and be yourself, to be authentic and vulnerable as a leader can be freeing. Rejecting that mold and choosing to be yourself can be a form of self-care.”
Communication invites vulnerability and self-care
This insight sticks with me for days. Self-care can be a cliché. It evokes candles and baths and long hours with Netflix. So too is ‘vulnerability’ perceived as just another trendy leadership style fit for ‘the future of work.’
But Pierrette offers a different vision of all these things.
Self-care, for a leader especially, is not acts of pleasure or indulgence. It is the very uncomfortable work they must do when confronting their own vulnerabilities and pain, growing through them and elevating themselves to better serve their people.
Pierrette believes an experienced communications team can guide you through this necessary work; their jobs, after all, are to uncover the humanity of business challenges and get leaders to articulate that emotional connection to their teams.
“There’s pressure at the mid-sized stage to be the next Steve Jobs,” Pierrette says. “Wowing everyone, engaging and inspiring. But leaders need to find their own style. That begins with learning and even unlearning things about yourself with a communication team.”
With the relentless pace of change, leaders of mid-sized businesses are simply not equipped with the resources to give their people the communications they deserve. They unrealistically expect that big changes will land perfectly (they won’t, Pierrette argues, without proper communication). She knows that the difficult work undergirding employee communication is, surprisingly, working through self-consciousness. She now carves out extra space and time to address exactly that.
For instance, when Pierrette coaches someone on a speech or a presentation, she often facilitates a confrontation with their own anxiety, their inner dialogue that gets in the way of their performance and leads them to stumble over their words or causes their message to fall flat. For leaders still struggling with the pressure to be a natural-born leader, communicator, and all-round superstar, a pressure Pierrette believes is informed by traditional standards of how a leader should act, she has to push them to rehearse – more often, more vigorously. She’s always thanked for doing so, acutely aware that anxiety in leaders can manifest as dismissive overconfidence, which can close off that extra preparation when they truly need it the most.
“Giving leaders the opportunity for this self-care and vulnerability is necessary to do better work,” she says. “We know that if we are doing this communication work for leaders, then we need to recognize the humanity in them.”
Self-care empowers your people
From an employee perspective, being part of a company lacking a formal or comprehensive communication function translates to the feeling of being “jolted, pinged around,” the sense that there’s a lot of people working on individual projects and no one in charge of integrating them. Or: scattered messages amount to endless noise. People tune out. This results in the high anxiety and sense of instability characteristic of mid-sized orgs, with nobody feeling the security that it will all unite one day. Then, building their communications is like “building the plane while you’re on the flight,” Pierrette admits.
Having a plan for communication that connects each message to the big picture of the organization helps leaders and employees feel secure – even in great turbulence.
Amidst cultural trends such as the Great Re-Engagement and quiet quitting, self-care seems like an obvious solution to mend the many rifts between employees, their leaders, and their work. The pressures of work that lead to burnout seem like they’re here to stay, and fostering mental wellness can be a powerful defense against them.
That said, self-care can be hard to take seriously. Who has the time?
But as Pierrette tells us, self-care is a business imperative. It’s essential for leaders to practice it and – just as importantly – be visible doing so. This can “trickle down” to employees and model a culture of psychological safety necessary to communicate care for others and to improve performance.
Self-care gives leaders the capacity and energy to cultivate psychological safety, the largest predictor of leadership success. And, as Pierrette tells us, it is the key to accessing the kind of vulnerable leadership that lets you more authentically empower yourself and your people.
Self-care strategies to implement now
What are actionable strategies for self-care we can take away today? Pierrette enlists the help of her team at Uniity, an outsourced communication agency focused on supporting mid-sized organizations, to give a few tips that busy leaders and professionals can implement right now:
- Think of self-care as an investment, like any other business investment, that will elevate your leadership, your people, and your organization.
- If short on time, divert just 5 minutes away from attention-sucking activities like social media into intentional periods of rest. Start with the micro-moments of care you can implement in small pockets of free time; you don’t need a comprehensive self-care routine right away.
- Lower the self-pressure to be an invincible, natural-born leader. Validate for yourself that feelings of loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and stress are a natural part of leading an organization.
Communicating a culture of vulnerability, authenticity, and self-care
As a leader, practicing self-care is just as important as communicating your efforts to work on your mental health. Open communication about self-care and mental flourishing can create a psychologically safe culture, one of the most powerful indicators of leadership success.
Here are a few key communication strategies that can model self-care for your employees now:
- Normalize discussion of mental health. Being honest about your own mental health struggles as a leader opens the door for employees to feel comfortable talking with you about mental health challenges of their own. Destigmatize the negative connotations of “seeking help,” accessing mental health resources, seeing a therapist, etc.
- Be vulnerable without oversharing. It’s often enough to share you’re dealing with personal struggles without getting into specific details about what those entail. Setting boundaries does not diminish the impact of being vulnerable.
- Support employee wellness initiatives and communicate what is being done to implement or improve them.
- Be consistent with disconnection policies. Don’t send communications in the dead of night if that’s not expected of your organization. This can foster greater trust and show you are “walking the talk” on your self-care strategies and philosophy.
Confronting your vulnerabilities strengthens your authenticity
To end our conversation, Pierrette reminds us: “Business leaders and presidents are all human beings, and they all have the same insecurities that we have. Except they feel they can’t project that because they are leaders. Whatever stories they told themselves causes their insecurities to bubble up.”
With her client Jane, who’d been anxious to get a new headshot, Pierrette offered that first step of self-awareness: an invitation to voice her vulnerabilities aloud. The simple gift of listening to somebody can free up their accumulation of stress that hardens into hidden insecurities. This can be enough to lead well.
But what elevates leadership to its highest potential is a deep commitment to reject manufactured understandings of always-perfect leadership. It means focusing on the vulnerable, painful, and unattended parts of yourself in order to sit more comfortably with them and to share them more openly. It means being vulnerable in ways that feel authentic to you and that forges more powerful communication and connection with others.
As Pierrette tells us, being yourself is self-care. And caring for yourself is the key to empowering others. This insight, along with a knack for creating instant trust, is how Pierrette convinced Jane to go and make peace with herself – and to get that new headshot, in the end.