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18 June 2024

Embracing Four Unexpectedly Effective Leadership Traits

Written by
Bill Pullen

Accepting who we are expands our capacity to lead

Before we became professionals, all of us were kids. 

We’ve all experienced levels of shame and crises of identity in our formative years. As a result, we all have parts of ourselves that we fear others won’t understand. But if we hope to be effective as leaders, there comes a point at which we need a deeper understanding and acceptance of ourselves as we really are. I’ve been doing my own reflecting on my journey as a gay man, and how this piece of my identity has impacted my career and development as a coach and leader.

Four traits surfaced that, although not typically associated with leadership, are essential for all leaders looking to lead teams of people in a way that is inclusive, and real. I invite you to reflect on your own experience to see what this uncovers for you.

Embracing authenticity

One of the most significant lessons I’ve learned on this journey is the importance of authenticity. Authenticity is not just about being honest with others; it’s about being true to oneself. As a leader, this means leading from a place of honesty and integrity. It means showing up as who you truly are, not as who you think others want you to be.

For me, this journey toward authenticity has been deeply personal. In the early days, hiding my true self seemed necessary for survival. However, I eventually realized that living a double life was not just exhausting and counterproductive, but was actually killing me. I found myself in increasingly dangerous and life-threatening situations because of my drug use.  

When I decided to embrace my identity rather than hide it, with things like proudly displaying photos of my partner and I, and choosing to openly refer to my partner as “him” rather than trying to delay someone finding out I was gay, I found a new level of strength and resilience that I never knew existed. For the first time, I began to heal old wounds. When leaders can tap into such authenticity, they are able to connect more deeply with others, build stronger relationships, and inspire those around them to be true to themselves as well.

I encourage you to ask yourself what photos in your life you would prefer to turn around rather than proudly display on your desk. What aspects of your past would you rather people didn’t know about you? And what fears drive you to want to protect yourself from others?

If you did choose to be more authentic, what might happen?

The power of vulnerability

Leadership is often associated with strength and confidence, but vulnerability is actually a critical component of effective leadership. Being vulnerable is exposing your weaknesses to others. My experiences with bullying, discrimination, and fear have taught me, sometimes the hard way, that vulnerability is not a weakness but a profound source of strength. 

In one organization, I was leading a difficult change and, unsurprisingly, getting a lot of resistance from people who wanted things to stay the same. But what was surprising was the bullying I experienced, from full-grown adults, throughout the process. 

There was a particular moment when all of this came to a head for me, and, without thinking about it, I became publicly emotional about the hurt that I felt. Though being vulnerable on that level, exposing my hurt and pain, was not what I planned to do that day, this moment became a turning point in the change process. People were able to better connect to my heart. Some of the resistance decreased, and we were able to find a new way to move forward together.

It takes courage to be vulnerable, to share your true self, and to admit your fears and failures. I have to remind myself on a regular basis that courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s feeling the fear and doing it anyway. 

As a leader, embracing vulnerability means being open about your own challenges and insecurities. It means creating a safe space by modeling our own vulnerability, deeply listening, and being curious about the experience of others, ensuring that all voices are heard. This openness fosters trust and deepens connections within a team or community. By showing vulnerability, leaders can lean into greater empathy and compassion, qualities that are essential for any effective leader.

What was a time you chose to be vulnerable and experienced a deepening relationship as a result? When did your risk pay off?

Resilience in the face of adversity

My journey has also taught me that the more I authentically embrace my identity, heal old wounds, and release the shame the more I become resilient.  Resilience is the strength that can only come from experiencing trials and difficulties. You cannot become resilient without being challenged.

After going through discrimination and prejudice, especially during the depths of my addiction and the height of the AIDS crisis, I am able to recover more quickly when I’m challenged in a meeting or receive difficult feedback. While I am still a sensitive person, my ego isn’t so fragile that I can’t withstand criticism. I have already faced these demons on a deeper level. 

Think through the trials you’ve already faced in your life. Fill in the blanks: If I’ve overcome ____, then I am strong enough to withstand _____. Let the second blank be a challenge you’re currently finding difficult to overcome.

Experiences of shame and rejection can be powerful motivators for good leadership if we allow them to be. When we can look back and see what we have overcome, we can visualize ourselves overcoming so much more in the future. 

Embracing one’s authentic identity and healing from shame can foster resilience, enabling individuals to face adversity head-on. This resilience becomes a crucial trait for effective leadership, as it allows leaders to bounce back from setbacks, learn from failures, and inspire others. By openly sharing their experiences of overcoming adversity, resilient leaders motivate others to find their own strength, persist through obstacles, and ultimately thrive in the face of difficulty.

The importance of empathy

The hurt you endure can become your capacity for empathy. Experiencing marginalization firsthand has opened my eyes to the trials other people suffer. I know the deep emotional twists people feel when they are excluded, judged, and misunderstood. When I see it happen to others, I know how important it is to speak up. This allows me to connect with others on a deeper level and encourages me to seek to understand their lived experiences, gifts, struggles, and perspectives. Empathy is a cornerstone of effective leadership. It enables leaders to build inclusive environments where everyone feels valued and heard. 

Leaders can and should reflect on their own experiences of the emotional impact of marginalization and share these stories with others. They can actively listen to others’ stories without judgment, aiming to understand their viewpoints and acknowledge and validate the experiences and feelings of those who have faced discrimination. As leaders continue to do this work they are able to use their platforms to amplify marginalized voices and advocate for inclusivity.

Are there times you wish you had spoken up on behalf of others? What would you do differently now? What commitments do you want to make to yourself to act in the future?


Reflecting on my journey as a gay man, I see how each step has shaped my approach to leadership. Embracing authenticity, vulnerability, resilience, and empathy has not only helped me navigate my own challenges but has also, hopefully, enabled me to be a more effective and compassionate leader.

As we celebrate Pride Month, I am reminded of the importance of sharing our stories and learning from one another. Each of our journeys is unique, but they all contribute to a richer, more inclusive tapestry of human experience. By embracing our true selves and leading with authenticity and empathy, we can create a world where everyone is free to be who they are and to lead from their own unique strengths.

Which of these four traits—authenticity, vulnerability, resilience, and empathy—do you most need to examine in your life right now? What other traits would you add to this list? It is not easy to be seen and known in fullness, but in doing so, our leadership becomes a bit more of what we all want to be—truly human.

3 thoughts on “Embracing Four Unexpectedly Effective Leadership Traits”

  1. Sharon Keys Seal says:

    Beautiful, wise insights, Bill. Getting a glimpse of your journey through life brought up feelings of sadness and ultimately joy. May you continue to thrive and learn, and be a model to me and myriad others. Sending hugs and love….Sharon Seal

  2. Alvin Mendez says:

    A good read for me Bill. Thank you.

  3. Linda Bidlack says:

    Riveting, and so moving. Bless you for giving us this.

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