Redefining Strength in Higher Ed. Leadership


Strong or weak?

I can’t believe what I just saw! Well, yes actually, I can believe it because I see this pattern regularly but never in such an obvious way. I was watching the video of a life coach doing an on-stage intervention on someone who claimed he was also a coach. The person was struggling with a range of emotions related to grief. His twin daughters died and because he is a strong person, the one everyone relies on, he didn’t let himself fall apart.

In fact, he had kept busy feeding the homeless, coaching people, giving love and support to other parents etc. But he said he was “still” hurting. How long do you think it had been? Five years? Ten years? No. It had been six days. Let that sink in. He lost both of his children six days prior and spent that week helping others.

Is that strength? Or is that fear? It was obvious to everyone in the room that his choices were misguided. I’ll be first to tell people not to dwell on problems but, oh my goodness, losing children is one of the most painful and traumatic things any parent can go through! Nobody can “get over it” in a week! The healthy thing to do would have been to give extra care and love to the mother of the children, take a temporary break from trying to help everyone else, and allow the grief be felt. Time should have been spent with loved ones, sharing the same loss and grieving together, instead of avoiding them and getting distracted by focusing on other people.

This man, in order to be strong, chose to focus on other people’s problems. He did not want to feel his own pain. He didn’t want to be overpowered by grief. And I get it, I used to be that way too. I used to think that being strong meant that nothing would take me down. I would never let myself fall apart or even show weakness. I was masterful at blocking thoughts and emotions. So, I hid from my feelings and attempted to skip ahead to “back to normal” far too soon. Do you do that too?

What I see in higher education leadership

I have the honor and privilege of working with the smartest, most educated, and most impressive leaders. Their accomplishments, service to others, contributions, hard work, sacrifices, and relentless courage to show strength and do the right thing are inspiring. That being said, I can’t deny that most over-achievers tend to define strength as “not letting anything take them down” and “never showing any signs of weakness” or “never needing anything from anyone”.

Do you see what the problem is? That belief system forces them to repress thoughts and emotions, to judge themselves when they are feeling like human beings instead of robots, and unknowingly, they become their own abusers. They lack compassion for themselves and hold themselves to impossible standards. What they see as strength is in fact an absolute refusal to acknowledge what is happening within themselves.

The kicker is that when it comes to other people’s issues, they show far more wisdom and heart. That’s because they can see clearly, without their own baggage. That explains why so many leaders talk about authenticity, transparency, and compassion, but aren’t able to walk the talk. Their inner conflict keeps them stuck. So, if being strong means repressing the self, that’s what they will do. They can read all of Brené Brown’s books and still not change, because they don’t know how to resolve their inner conflict.

What about you?

Do you ever think those thoughts?

  • “I shouldn’t feel [feel in the blank _____________ e.g. hurt, jealousy, fatigue, etc.] because I am better than that.”

  • “This terrible thing just happened but since there is nothing I can do to fix it, I need to get over it now. Just move on.”

  • “What happened today makes me feel [feel in the blank _____________ e.g. afraid, disappointed, frustrated, etc.] and it’s my fault that I am not good enough. I must do better.”

Do you engage in any of these behaviors?

  • You observe something unwanted and cannot accept it, so you avoid it and find refuge in something that makes you feel good about yourself, such as your work, where you are successful and in control.

  • Someone does something they shouldn’t do, and you are hurt by it. You have been victimized but since you’d rather die than ever think of yourself as a victim of anything, you pretend the unfair event never happened.

  • Your workload and the pressure you feel are so excessive that you are beyond exhausted but you won’t acknowledge it because you think you should be able to handle anything.

  • When you need help, it is extremely uncomfortable to ask for it, so you don’t. The idea of needing something from someone makes you feel inadequate. It means you’re not good enough or you’re not accomplishing enough. So instead of getting more resources to make your life better, you punish yourself with more self-criticism.

  • Someone is being emotional about something. You care about their well-being, but their public display of emotions is terribly uncomfortable, and you need to physically remove yourself from the scene. This is too much. You can’t risk being affected by this. If you break down and cry too, you will be humiliated and never forgive yourself, so you leave.

How will you define strength?

Going back to the initial story, if you were looking for a coach, would you choose someone who thinks he should no longer feel bad about losing his children six days after their death? Of course not! His excessive attachment to bouncing back, not dwelling, and not be self-centered would be a huge red flag because all you could see would be avoidance and fear. You couldn’t trust him to be the best coach for you.

Now, what would you think of a higher ed. leader who acted as if nothing ever challenged them or hurt them? Imagine someone who wouldn’t even acknowledge setbacks or major crises? Could you trust them? Probably not.

When leaders go too far with their tendency to repress feelings and deny the truth, they typically develop anxiety, harsh self-criticism, impatience, impulsiveness, irritability, poor sleep, and they often self-soothe by overconsuming food or alcohol or numbing their emotions by watching too much television. In the office, they tend to be intimidating, hard to relate to, and sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. In most cases, they feel isolated. The walls they built to keep the pain out also prevents the love and connection from coming in.

Now, imagine someone real, someone who acknowledges the truth, and has a healthy way to deal with problems, allowing natural feelings to arise, while knowing how to remain professional. Someone you can relate to, because they are human, just like you. Someone who can be a role model because they neither dwell nor skip ahead. They are not running away from anything. That’s what being strong really is about!

Strength and denial cannot co-exist. Strong leaders must be willing to be vulnerable. Strength is facing the truth, including fears, rather than avoiding them. Would you agree? Please share your perspective in the comments.

If this article hit a nerve, I invite you to click here schedule a call with me to discuss your professional and personal development goals. Working with a coach will give you the structure, support, strategy, and encouragement you need to go through the process with ease and be successful. Much love to you!

About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, and online courses. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.