To Know Yourself as a Leader, Share Yourself
Today's leadership story comes from my friend and colleague, Dr. Christine Ristaino.
I asked her to share this personal story about how she’s evolved her approach to leadership. Below is a small sample of her courage and candor, which are a source of inspiration to me.
Christine Ristaino, Ph.D. is a professor at Emory University, where she teaches Italian literature, culture and language. She is also the author of the award-winning memoir, "All the Silent Spaces."
When I was a young teacher, I longed to mentor my students but it was rare I had the opportunity to do so. Each day we met and celebrated the Italian culture and language. It was fun, but my students left the classroom and I didn’t see them again until the next class.
Decades later, I still teach Italian but things are different. I now connect with my students in far more meaningful ways, both personally and academically. So what changed in me that made this possible?
One weekend in 2007, I was attacked by a stranger in a parking lot in front of my two young children. I had to teach the following Monday with a black eye, broken nose and bruises around my neck. As I pieced myself and my family back together, the whirlwind that followed affected my teaching and my life, and I had to be honest with my students about the trauma I had endured.
A surprising thing happened. My students began to confide in me about their own lives, their own struggles, their ups and downs. They began visiting my office hours with regularity, just to talk, and as I healed, they did, too.
Today, I enter my classroom as a whole person. Yes, I am my students’ Italian teacher, but I am also a mother of two teenagers, a passionate foodie, a wife, a survivor of violence, an author, a sister, a beloved daughter, and an advocate for social justice. I share my ups and downs as well as my failures and successes. When my students walk into my classroom, they are welcomed by the whole me, not just the one I think they want to see.
Sharing my whole self has led to other positive changes at work. I make better decisions and I am a stronger, more powerful leader. My students and community know they can be human around me, and they don’t have to be anybody else but themselves in my presence. Their vulnerability is an amazing gift that I never anticipated and for which I will always be grateful.
For me, it’s such a pleasure to read about a leader who simply puts it all out there — right on the line for all to experience, without the bravado of seeking the spotlight or chasing perfection in themselves.
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So what lessons should we take away from Christine’s experiences? Here’s what I learned:
- Our humanity is compelling to others. If there’s one thing the global pandemic has taught us, it is that it’s a fallacy to separate your personal life from your professional life. Pretending to be something you’re not is both exhausting and suboptimal. People gravitate towards authenticity, candor and the sense they are dealing with a “real” person.
- Strength can be born out of fear. Ironically, I was assaulted by a stranger in a parking lot when I was 23, and fortunately I was not physically injured. I can’t imagine what it took for Christine to transform someone else’s violence into her own personal strength, but she’s done just that. She may be petite in stature, but she’s a powerhouse in person.
- The whole self is the best self. Wisdom doesn’t come from just our work experiences — quite the contrary. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in leadership discussions debating how to tackle a particular challenge, and found myself reflecting on parenting decisions where being a role model really, really mattered. Wisdom and truth know no boundaries.
- Shared struggles are a powerful bond. I’m all in favor of success, but we shouldn’t mistake “winning” for forming close bonds. In fact, our emotions associated with challenging times forge stronger memories than emotions associated with smooth sailing. Win or lose, lasting connections with others are a result of the shared effort invested along the way. Allowing yourself to be transparent about life’s ups and downs fosters common ground with others, which is an essential element of relationships.
- To be vulnerable is to be courageous. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing Brené Brown speak, you know how compelling she is on the topic of vulnerability. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from her:
"Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome."
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About the Author
Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.