Leadership Skills #3: Great Leaders Walk Naked

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Walking naked is a cool subject, right? What does being naked have to do with leadership skills? Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, let’s define it. Being naked as a leader is letting go of the facade and being yourself.

You might be thinking, does that mean I tell people everything? No. Do I let my employees see me sweat? Sometimes.

As we have discussed so far in this Top 10 Leadership Series, anything can become a weakness overused, so we are not talking about going to the extreme. We want to balance that competitive edge that “being you” brings to the table in a manner in which we are authentic and real to other people.

Great Leaders Are Vulnerable

People who are great leaders have vulnerable qualities. For example, they are comfortable in their own skin – as if they were mingling with anyone without hesitation or reservation. They are unguarded to say or do what is appropriate at the time.

I admire these leaders as they have a calming effect on people by consistently being candid and forthright in a professional manner. People listen to them, trust them, and will work harder for them compared to a leader that holds back and comes across as reserved, uptight, and too serious.

Have you ever had an experience where an employee gets a job promotion to become a manager and change into a serious, authoritarian person?

I’ve heard people say, “My buddy I used to work and socialize with is now distant and discusses matters behind closed doors”. Yes, roles change when you become a manager, but the style of communication used in the past doesn’t have to. You can still be you.

If you are a manager, you may not connect with this example because you don’t view yourself as being distant or anti-social. That is because you probably are not!

Here is what happens – managers tend to revert to a more serious style of communication when they are in their daily “management role” or “expert role”. When this happens, the intensity can stifle the opportunity to connect with the people that need to hear the message the most.

Unhappy Employees

Why Employees Believe Managers Don’t Care

I’m going to switch gears for a moment because I think I can make a case for why managers may not come across as the authentic and positive people they really are. I had the opportunity to be a part of a fascinating discussion on some U. S. leadership statistics conducted by Maritz Research. Here are a few statistics from their engagement survey:

  • 12% of employees believe their employer genuinely listens and cares.  Wow, that means 88% of employees believe their managers don’t listen or care.
  • 10% of employees trust management to make the right decision in times of uncertainty. 90% of managers are not trusted to make the right decisions?
  • 1 in 10 Americans believes their company’s leaders are ethical and honest. This is a big finding. 90% of Americans believe their company’s leaders are unethical and dishonest. This definitely tells us that there is a need for being more real because, obviously, employees don’t really know their management team members. I’ve been around managers for over 25 years, and I have only run across a handful that falls into this category!

These statistics got me thinking about why a leader’s trustworthiness is often not perceived by employees. I decided to do some research on leadership styles in management teams and found a very interesting observation. Managers focus on fixing a problem instead of connecting with those that created the problem.

Values and Management Skills of Managers

Comparing what managers value to how employees feel about their managers created a huge realization. Because managers are responsible for supervising day-to-day activities, they buckle down on preparation, planning, and fact-finding (primarily isolated activities), resulting in employees not getting the opportunity to know their managers.

Additionally, when managers converse with employees, they often come across as too intense because they are focused on achievement, accuracy, and stability.

Prioritizing Challenges to Leadership

Let’s Take a Real Life Example

Tom is an operations manager who has just discovered that a huge quantity of the company’s products does not meet specifications. Even worse, they have already shipped to the customer. When Tom responds to this situation, he quickly composes and sends an email (or gets on the phone) with the emphasis on finding the facts, getting the problem fixed, and making sure it doesn’t happen again.

These are definitely important outcomes for the future, but the leadership style comes across to employees as though Tom just chewed them out for shipping the wrong product. They might think, “He really has no idea what we do and what we go through each day to do as well as we do.” In other words, Tom is viewed as “the uncaring boss” and not as “a partner solving the problem”.

Leaders that Walk Naked Take a Reverse Approach

Great leaders realize that their employees have a need for socialization and must have opportunities to “be real” with their managers. This thinking requires the “old school” manager to let go of what has become familiar and do what Dr. Robert Quinn, author of Deep Change (my favorite book), refers to as “walk naked into the land of uncertainty”.

This means temporarily adjusting our focus and management habits to think about what behaviors and leadership skills our employees need to make sure a mistake doesn’t happen again.

In Tom’s case, a switch to effectively communicating in alignment with his “real leadership character” (Tom’s a really great guy) would more quickly resolve the issue.

For example, employees need to feel trusted, involved, and part of the solution in contrast to being diagnosed, controlled, and lectured. Are any of us guilty? Absolutely. This leadership skill is the exact opposite of what we are wired to do.


Followers need the opposite approach of our typical desire to jump in and fix problems. They need managers to involve them in the problem in order to connect and build trust.

Great leaders are experts at being vulnerable (walking naked) to reveal their real, authentic character. A leader who doesn’t walk naked isn’t a leader but a poser because we don’t know who they really are or if we can trust them.

How is Vulnerability Important for Leadership Skills?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained over 30,000 leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Masterclass helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders.
  • Dr. Bobby Gene Martin, Ph.D. says:

    Dr. Mary Kay, I couldn’t agree more. My disdain for the business world’s confusion with associating the term leader, with those who manage, prompted me to engage in my doctoral pursuit. My doctoral research was conducted to seek understanding and to give voice to the casualties of management behaviors. Through qualitative research, and interviews with those who lived the experience, I sought to focus the lens of discernment on managers, from the perception of the followers, to determine if those in a position of influence over others were naked (leaders) or clothed (sheep’s clothing, managers). My findings have been published in ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

    Martin, B. G. (2011). Toward Gemeinschaftsgefühl: Exploring subordinate and manager perceptions of trust and perceptions regarding behavioral change potential (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3486058)

  • Dr. Mary Kay Whitaker says:

    Thanks Dr. Martin for providing a resource to us on your leadership findings from the perspective of followers. Posting the abstract of your study would be very helpful.

  • Dr. Bobby Martin says:

    Dissertation Title: Toward Gemeinschaftsgefühl: Exploring Subordinate and Manager Perceptions of Trust and Perceptions Regarding Behavioral Change Potential

    In this qualitative, phenomenological study, Maslow’s eupsychian theory was used as the guiding framework for exploring the perceptions of trust and the behavioral change potential of subordinates (includes frontline supervisors) and managers (excludes frontline supervisors) within selected aviation maintenance organizations in Arizona. The problem addressed in the study was the growing concern that managers willfully mistreated subordinates, which led to decreased trust, motivation, and productivity. A combined representative sample of 10 maintenance technicians and frontline supervisors was purposively selected from the production lines of a large commercial aviation repair and overhaul station located in Arizona. An additional combined representative sample of 10 maintenance technicians and frontline supervisors was selected from a United States military aircraft maintenance unit located in Arizona. The use of open-ended questions during informal interviews, along with casual observation of interviewees, enabled the extraction of the rich, textual data that described the experiences from the perspective of the study participants. The significance of this study is the generation of awareness on the part of subordinates and frontline supervisors relative to their perceptions of trust within the respective aviation maintenance organizations studied. The resultant data are for use by managers within aviation maintenance organizations, and are presented as a means of self-awareness and for improving relationships between subordinates and managers. In this study, the findings indicate that transitional change within both sample organizations, the perceptions regarding relationships indicate more trust than distrust between subordinates and managers, and manager behaviors influence subordinate behaviors. In this study, it was revealed that families were the single-most important motivational factor for the participants of the study, which included maintenance technicians and frontline supervisors. The recommendations for managers within aviation maintenance organizations are to minimize negative behaviors and nurture positive relationships with subordinates through sincere gratitude. Managers should be cognizant of an excessive short-term focus (chart and number chasing). In order to explore how followers’ personality affected their perceptions of managers, research is still needed. A follow-on quantitative study will be conducted with a larger sample size of participants at other aviation maintenance organizations to provide richer results.

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