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How a moment of weakness became my most powerful act as a leader

The former chief of an ad agency reflects on the most powerful moments she experienced as a leader that came from “letting go of the archaic notion that strength lies only in bravado and bluster.”

How a moment of weakness became my most powerful act as a leader
[Photo: Zohre Nemati]
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Picture the scene. A tall, charismatic guy decked out in a perfectly tailored custom suit, ankles exposed, sharp Italian shoes. Or perhaps he’s wearing a T-shirt, blazer, distressed jeans, black high-tops, white soles, a smart pair of Warby Parker glasses to complete the look. He struts across the stage to accept the award. Most Brilliant Leader Award. A-List. Entrepreneur of the Year.

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He’s beaming with pride as he grabs hold of the hardware and launches into his speech, which covers a hit list of well-trodden leadership themes. Vision. Grit. Blood, sweat, and tears. Risk. Hunger. Tenacity. Fearlessness. Winning.

No doubt, these are hallmarks of many of the best leaders. But they’re also stereotypical qualities associated with traditional notions of strength and masculinity. As a female leader in the male-dominated advertising industry, I’ve noticed how profoundly this can change when bestowed upon a woman.

To be clear, the most badass women leaders I know also share these qualities. But in addition, they credit their success to overcoming the things which most men wouldn’t dare speak of publicly: failure, setbacks, and happily sharing the spotlight with the circle of supporting cast members behind the scenes—be it their team, their tribe, or their spouse keeping shit together back at home. They approach their roles as fierce leaders, while unapologetically embracing their other priorities, be it families or feelings, and finding fulfillment in other ways than just financials and fame.

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Leading with vulnerability

When I reflect on my proudest moments as a CEO, the industry accomplishments are certainly a given: Transforming an under-the-radar boutique agency into a two-time Small Agency of the Year winner and launching the powerful “Gun Share” activation that drove global awareness for the issue of gun violence.

But beyond these things, I’m most proud of showing up as myself. 100% me. Leading with my head and my heart. Logic and emotion. Passion and principles. Not minimizing the other aspects of my life beyond the agency for fear they might ruin my ascent up the ranks (something I had certainly been guilty of in the past). Leaving at 5:25 pm on most days, giving me just enough time to roll into after-care to pick up my son without the dreaded call that “He’s now in the principal’s office because he’s the last kid left.”

Even if I had to drive back to the office and hunker down for a late-night pitch session, it was worth it to show up as a mom to my kid for that moment (which would be cherished by him far longer than a single point in time). Giving credit where credit was due rather than stealing another individual or team’s thunder. Fighting for the right thing to do—whether investments in the business or in our people—even if it ruffled feathers, rocked the boat, or ultimately never got resolved.

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The most powerful moments I’ve experienced as a leader have come from letting go of the archaic notion that strength lies only in bravado and bluster, or self-serving agendas that your staff can see right through. Don’t get me wrong—I love Cindy Gallop‘s call to arms, urging women to stand up for themselves, use their voice, lean into their power, and advocate for structural change. I try to live and lead every day with those lessons in my arsenal. But there’s another side to true badassery that is equally important: leading with vulnerability.

Turning “weakness” into power

I’ll make a confession. I cried in front of my entire agency. Not once, but probably three to four times. Some may find this cringeworthy—an outright admission of weakness in this dog-eat-dog industry.

But let’s be honest. Leading an agency is not for the faint of heart. Celebrating new business wins, eating Sprinkles cupcakes for the month’s birthdays, and naming the office dog company mascot and MVP—those are the easy things. Try standing up in front of your staff after a brutal loss and explaining, with absolute conviction and optimism, that we’re better off without them. Try parting ways with talented people who not only contributed to your success but called you a friend. Try sharing your sadness in an all-staff meeting that one of your personal heroes and greatest storytellers of our time, Anthony Bourdain, had committed suicide, and feeling the tear actually roll down your cheek.

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In the latter instance, what could have been a mortifying experience as a leader unlocked something powerful and unexpected. In sharing my grief, a team member opened up about his own: his journey as a chef before advertising, how “Kitchen Confidential” changed his life, his personal struggles with depression, and the tattoo emblazoned on his forearm, which he proudly lifted up his shirt sleeve to reveal as an homage to Bourdain, his own personal hero. He ended with this: “I just want you all to know, if anyone wants to talk, I’m here for you too.”

Sharing emotions strengthens a culture

The particles in the room shifted that day, as they do during times of genuine shared emotion, whether grief, laughter, gratitude, or collaborative flow. When people feel and believe that “we’re in this together,” it changes everything. Sharing your truth gives those around you permission to do the same. It connects people. Deepens bonds. Did it solve every problem or challenge we were facing? No. But it did create unity and loyalty more than any random perk can.

Being the most vocal and simultaneously the most vulnerable

I never envisioned nor aspired to be the leader of an ad agency. But it was an incredible opportunity that enabled me to set a vision and drive business impact. To grow and learn. To inspire my team and other women out in the world in search of role models. But it’s also been the hardest job I’ve ever had. To show up every day and feel responsible for every person in the building, with a mortgage or rent, kids and dogs, lives and hopes and dreams, being fueled by our business success.

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The current blueprint that most of us have for leadership is one of tenacity, force, showing no signs of weakness. But what I know for sure is this: The boldest act of leadership lies in simply showing up as yourself. The unique collection of expertise, experience, and emotions that only you bring to the role. The integrity you show matters. The influence you have matters. And the internal feelings you experience as a human being can give dimension, authenticity, and gravitas to your external show of strength.


Celia Jones is a branding and corporate communications specialist.

A version of this article originally appeared on Medium and is reprinted with permission.