Living Leadership

Living Leadership

Embrace the ugly

Julie Thorson, Friendship Haven
Julie Thorson, Friendship Haven

When is the last time you came to work with no makeup, hair not done and in your PJs? What's your answer? Never? Or would you answer with, “Why would anyone ever do that?” My answer would be “last week.”

That's because last week I showed up with no makeup, hair in curlers, PJs on and in a robe. Before I tell you the why (and there is a why), I want to spend a few minutes on embracing the ugly.

It's taken me a long time to embrace my inner ugly. For a long time as a CEO, I thought it was important to hide the ugly. The “ugly” in my leadership language refers to anything you may try to hide. Not hide in a bad way or illegal way, but let's just say it's not something you are particularly proud of.

For example, a house that's always picked up with everything in its place. That isn't something you will find when you visit the Thorson house. With two teenagers active in sports and life, you will find gym bags, swimsuits, football pads, wet towels, dishes, Gatorade bottles and a multitude of other things at any given time.

It's not pretty. It's ugly but it's home and comfortable. When we have people over, I may or may not pick everything up. I've learned to embrace the ugly.

It's comfortable it's our norm and it works. I still do feel the need to clean when entertaining, but for the most part I've grown to be OK with not everything always being it its place. Some might call that ugly, but for me its home and it's just fine.

In leadership, the ugly, to me, is showing your vulnerability — if not to others, then at least to yourself. It's not something I do every day or something I particularly like to do at all. However, it is necessary. If your team perceives you as someone who has it all figured out all the time and is perfect, the expectation or standard is unattainable. Bottom line: We are all ugly at some point in the day, in our life, in our careers. It's inevitable.

Now, don't misunderstand. As leaders, we all strive for perfection. Some of us have nowhere we can let down. The danger is when this standard is set so high, there is no room for ugly. Leaders may perfect their way to a boiling point. It is perfectly OK to let some steam out of the pot from time to time. It is certainly OK. You have permission.

So back to my pajamas … we were celebrating our spirit week to promote our annual fundraising event. Employees were encouraged to wear pajamas to remind everyone of this great event and to have a little fun at work.

The night before, I debated back and forth: I can't come to work looking like a fool, can I? Then I reminded myself it's OK to embrace the ugly. Show some vulnerability and not take myself too seriously.

It is amazing how unproductive you can feel at work when you aren't dressed professionally (but that's a blog for another time). It was, however, liberating to embrace the ugly (curlers in hair, and all) and show that as a leader I'm not above making myself look a little goofy to remind other leaders its OK to be vulnerable and have some fun at work.

If you don't know what your “ugly” is yet, figure it out. As a leader, you don't have to have everything figured out and be perfect all the time. The standard is set high enough. Give yourself a break and be ugly from time to time.

Julie Thorson's “Living Leadership” blog has been named the 2016 “Best New Department” Bronze Award winner by the American Society of Health Publication Editors. The president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a continuing care retirement community in Fort Dodge, IA, that earned the Governor's Award for Quality in 2014, Thorson is a coach's daughter at heart. She is a former part-time nursing home social worker who quickly ascended the leadership ranks. Now a licensed nursing home administrator, she has been a participant in LeadingAge's Leadership Academy and was recently named LeadingAge Iowa's Mentor of the Year. 

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