The Emergence of Intimacy

We attended the annual leadership meeting of a company. Over the last eight years they have become increasingly positive. In the last year, there has been a particular emphasis on becoming a company of higher purpose. At the meeting there was a new pattern that we often observe as a company turns to purpose. Senior people begin to become more intimate, vulnerable and authentic.

In this company the annual meeting is scripted from start to finish. On the first day, after someone made a presentation on purpose, the CEO stood up and left the script. He told a personal story and then spoke about the importance of families. His presentation was unexpected but deeply appreciated by the audience.

On the final day the CEO again spoke from his most intimate experiences. He told of John, his uncle and a man of extraordinary, worldly accomplishments and great recognition.   John had a heart attack and was dying. The CEO said he went to visit John. He asked John what he had been thinking about. John replied that he had been thinking about all the people in his life. He told a story about his sons who recently visited. During the visit the two sons hugged each other. John said, “It was beautiful.”

In the entire conversation John never mentioned any of his great achievements or the rewards they brought. The CEO was very moved, he said, “For me, it was a message from the future. What really matters, what bring us our greatest meaning, is our relationships.”

The CEO began to speak about the difference between leading a successful life verses leading a significant life. Success tends to be about personal achievement. Significance tends to be about contributing to the good of others. He spoke of the cumulative effect of making many small contributions to the people around us.

Then he said, “Investing in relationships does not come to me naturally, so I have decided to work at it.” I was quite taken by this sentence. I looked around the room and it was clear that everyone was captured by this revelation. Vulnerability garners attention.

The CEO then told another personal story. He spoke of a lower level employee who was retiring after forty years. The person who brought him the news wondered if the CEO might be able to drop in on the retirement party for a few minutes. When the CEO checked his calendar it was the day the board meets. He would be having lunch with the board, so he declined the invitation.

The experience, nevertheless, stayed in his mind. He kept thinking about how much his presence might mean to the employee. He began to think that leaving the board for a few minutes might not be such a big deal. He eventually decided to make the visit.

When the CEO walked into the retirement celebration, the person who made the invitation simply “lit up.” The retiring employee was “dumbfounded.” He could not imagine the CEO attending at his retirement party. Everyone was delighted. The interesting thing was the impact on the CEO. He said he also felt “lit up.” He returned to the board filled with positive energy.

The small experience was so positive, that the CEO began to ask himself how he could more regularly make such small but positive investments. So he asked the people who surround him to look for and notify him of such opportunities. He closed by asking the audience to imagine a company where all 150 top leaders were regularly making similar small, positive investments.

His remarks were well received. At the conclusion of the meeting, I chatted with one of the participants. I asked her to assess her three-day experience. She said, “This is so different. Of all of these meetings that I have attended, this is the best by far. I am so looking forward to what happens to this company.”

Why is it, that when a company begins to orient to higher purpose, senior people begin to become more intimate, vulnerable and authentic? One reason is that as senior people try to explain personal and organizational purpose, it becomes necessary to illustrate. It is difficult to explain our personal purpose without sharing the experiences from which our purpose and understanding stem. It is difficult to speak of the link between our personal purpose and the organizational purpose without sharing meaningful experiences.

As we do, we make another discovery. Sharing who we really are is not a weakness. It is an act of strength. The expression of vulnerability is a demonstration of power that mature leaders understand. It is an invitation to trust, learning and collective development. Those who fear self-revelation, have yet to enter the realm of transformational influence.


As leaders change their cultures to be more positive, they also become more positive, why?

How can vulnerability be a source of power?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?



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