I glanced down at my shirt to confirm. Yup. There they were. The splotches of a darker color as my shirt soaked up my sweat. How embarrassing. Here I was facilitating a session on leadership, creating a space for deep learning and reflection using martial arts activities, and I was obviously sweating. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I was sure the participants could tell when I was a bit winded from the combination of the activity plus the talking. Darn it. Why couldn’t I do this looking completely cool and collected? Why couldn’t I uphold that perfect image?
I thought about that session many times as I continued to facilitate using active approaches and I continued to sweat. I sweat a lot - it’s just part of my genes and I live in a tropical place. The line from an old deodorant commercial “never let them see you sweat” kept circling around in my head, obviously intimating that I had failed in this particular endeavor. But what does it mean to let others see you sweat? And what are the implications for peace work, resilience development, and facilitation?
If not letting others see you sweat is about projecting an image that you’ve got it all together, then sweating is about vulnerability. I was sweating not only because my body was working, but because my mind was working hard and I was nervous about how the activities I was leading would be received. Would they ultimately work or fall completely flat? How did I need to adjust course along the way?
It seems increasingly we are enamored by the pristine ideal of the put together person we’re supposed to be. We painstakingly construct images of ourselves, editing what we put on social media to create the perfect picture of who we want people to think we are. In reality, we are still messy, and we know that often a pristine social media hides something completely different. Mess is the nature of life and humanity. Somewhere inside we know it, and yet we still seek to shove it in a corner as we try to live up to our social media persona. In doing this, though, we rob ourselves of the opportunity for grace. Grace when our mess is no longer containable, grace when we fall, and grace to pick ourselves up and keep walking with bloodied knees. We lose the possibility to engage the world as our whole selves - simultaneously put together and disheveled.
Take this one step further, and you might start asking why we feel the need to absolutely eliminate all signs of mess and dishevelment from professional settings. As if, regardless of how you got there, when you are in front of a room leading something, you must always remain polished and pristine. Anything less is failure. Anything less means you don’t know what you are doing and therefore you don’t deserve to be in front of the room. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we more respect those teachers in our lives who could admit they didn’t know everything and who let us see their own ongoing learning.
The more I work with resilience and leadership and innovation, the more conversations I have about living and working in vulnerability, trying new things, and going live with it even before you think you are ready.
As I continue to experiment with different ways to explore leadership, train peacebuilding, and facilitate, I still often worry about the new things I’m trying and whether or not they will work. What keeps me going are the models I’ve found in some peacebuilders and leaders I respect. They have made names for themselves and are well respected and commonly recognized as leaders and thought leaders in their fields. And when I ask them about how they got there, they talk a lot about experimenting. About continually trying new things not knowing if they would work or not. And I know this is the path to development. If I want to build skills and approaches and new ways of doing things, I must somehow live into this uncomfortable space of experimentation where you never know what will work or not and when you will succeed or fall flat. Because, ultimately, it is about the learning, the practice, and slowly building.
And what happens if you do fall flat? What happens when your experiment fails? What happens when they see you sweat? First, you learn. Second, they see a real person actively working to develop their craft, living into integrity, and sharing their vulnerability for their own growth and the growth of others. And that’s not all bad. It doesn’t mean you won’t scrape your knees when you fall, but maybe it means someone will come alongside you and buy you an ice cream after, and maybe someone else will feel able to step out because you did. If I am inspired to keep experimenting and growing and learning by people I respect who model experimentation regardless of failures along the way, what am I modeling to others?
And what about resilience? Does chasing the pristine ideal help us with resilience? On the contrary, I tend to think it works against resilience. If resilience is not about how you push through, but rather how you recover, then constantly chasing an impossible ideal of polished perfection will only reinforce existing negative feedback loops. Instead, watching how others sweat, mop their brows, and keep going can help us with our own journeys through difficulty.
This line of thought always brings me back to the leadership session that day and my sweaty shirt. The best leaders and most resilient people are courageous enough to show vulnerability. The best leaders and most resilient people not only encourage people to ask for help when they need it, but also express their own needs and actively ask for help themselves. The best leaders and most resilient people know they don’t know everything and are comfortable admitting that. And the best leaders and most resilient people let others see them sweat. They let you see it isn’t always easy and they don't always have all the answers, but they are pushing forward anyway.
So go ahead and let them see you sweat. And when your team falls, take each other out for ice cream, then plan your next experiment.