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The Greatest Weakness of Strong Women

Stop being the One-And-Only

Alice's relationship was rocky for years. She is a powerful executive coach who is asked to speak on leadership topics world-wide. When she met her boyfriend Dan, he was the marketing VP for a well-known global corporation. During their relationship, he moved on to creating his own consultancy. The travels and changes in their lives made for a bumpy relationship.

One Thursday evening Alice and I were on our way to a business meeting. She took a detour, explaining that she had to give Dan something. They had broken up for the upteenth time. I knew the stop was a way for her to see him, but I didn't say anything. When we got to Dan's house, I busied myself looking at pictures in his hallway while they talked.

In the middle of their hushed argument, Alice blurted, "You have no idea how much I need you."

After a long silence, Dan said, "I would have never known."

That conversation led to them getting back together. They are now married.

This was an incredible lesson for me. We strong women often feel we need to tough it out on our own. We forget to give others the gift of letting them help us. Do you ever wave off offers of help or reject suggestions from the people you love?

What will it take for you to open your arms to the gift of assistance and allow yourself to be comforted?

This is not just a personal problem. Playing the warrior, heroine and martyr can be even more intense at work. When was the last time you accepted advice from others? When you are under pressure, do you feel you have to know everything and keep things together? Are you afraid you would disappoint, let people down, or lose status in their eyes (or more likely, your own) if you let someone else step in and handle the situation?

If you are shaking your head in agreement, you are a victim of two beliefs. You might have one or both. They are equally powerful in shaping your behavior:

  1. To be seen as a "strong women" you adamantly block anything that would resemble "being girly." You in no way want to be mistaken as one of "those women." Any small action that might make you look needy and dependent is repulsive.
  2. You have been brought up with messages about being strong, tough, and the greatest at what you do. In an effort to shield you from the needy girl syndrome, or even The Imposter Phenomenon, one or both of your parents adamantly instilled a sense of righteous independence and significance in you. Now you are plagued by this Burden of Greatness

As a result, you have created a wall that not only blocks other people from supporting you, it keeps you from creating intimate, mutual relationships. At work, your leadership could be questioned as you prevent full collaboration and respect for everyone's ideas.

Contrary to many leadership tomes, I don't think the answer is to "show your vulnerability." The problem is that you have defined accepting help as being vulnerable, which means you are susceptible to being wounded or hurt, including being open to criticism.

The truth is, you are vulnerable no matter what you do. Either the attack is to your face or behind your back. Either way, it hurts you whether you feel it or not.

When you accept help, listen to other ideas and let someone else do things for you, you are stronger, not vulnerable. You can accomplish more. You get better results. You are appreciated and respected for who you are as well as what you great things you do.

What step can you take today to take a brick from your wall? Can you:

  1. Ask someone for their suggestions and then patiently and amiably accept them.
  2. Give away one of your tasks that is meaningful (not just drudge work) such as allowing someone else to make a presentation for you, attend a meeting or event in your place or take on a piece of your work that will help them develop their skills.
  3. Tell someone how much you appreciate their help and assistance. Acknowledge what they mean to you.
  4. Accept well-intended advice whether you plan to use it or not. Be gracious. Acknowledge the gift instead of treating it as an annoyance or attack on your intelligence.

Create interdependencies. This doesn't make you dependent. These days when work blurs into your home life with cell phones and email, embracing help makes you more powerful than trying to do everything alone.

¹ The Burden of Greatness emerged as a strong theme in my doctoral study of today's high-achieving women. This trend is full explained in my book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction (Berrett-Koehler, 2010).

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