I heard somewhere recently that leaders need both thick skin and a big heart. At face value, those two qualities might seem like an oxymoron. How can a tough, impervious person be vulnerable enough to let the softer side show? Christian D. Warren answers this question in his blog post called The Positive Aspects of Being Thick-Skinned. He says:

“What being thick-skinned really means is that a person can take more pressure, ridicule, and proverbial “hits” than the average Joe. Most of the time, a thick skin also serves to protect a big, soft heart. So being thick-skinned should make a person warm, positive, and very easy to approach, because of the higher understanding of challenges conquered.”

If you’re not naturally thick-skinned and tend to reel when faced with criticism or intense pressure, what can you do to beef up your virtual armor?

Practice new internal messages. We can be our own worst enemies. When we receive feedback or feel great stress, we often have an internal dialogue that perpetuates feelings of uncertainty. You can actively replace internal messages like, “I can’t do this” with new ones. When the pressure is on, think, “I’ve survived worse” or “focus on facts” or “what’s the one next thing I can do?” These calming internal messages put you in control and help you remain rational.

Prepare before intensity strikes. Have a game plan in place so that you are ready to respond well in heated situations. Practice in front of a mirror, so that your facial expressions match your words. One good preparation strategy is to have a statement ready that  allows you to respond appropriately right away and then deal with the issue later. “I really appreciate you sharing that with me. I want to take a little time to think about what you’ve said. Can we meet this afternoon?”

Assume it isn’t personal. In reality, most comments are not intended as personal digs. Even if there is an intent to personally attack you, reacting to it does you no favors. Too often people remember your response, not the “offending” comment. Internal messaging helps here, too. Think, “what can I learn from this?” and craft a strategy to respond, if appropriate. Otherwise, if the comments are merely a distraction, move on.

What if you need to be more tender-hearted?

Be tough about issues and tender with people. Tony Schwartz’s blog, The Only Thing that Really Matters, makes this point perfectly. Your people’s need to feel valued and appreciated is fundamental. No matter what the trigger event is or how irritated you may be, you choose your reaction. Breathe deeply and take a moment to gather your thoughts, so that you can respond in a way that is firm, clear and maintains the dignity of all involved.

Be cautious about appearing unemotional, especially if you’re a female leader. There is a sweet spot for how emotional you appear on the job. Gabriela Cora writes about the detrimental effects of being perceived as cold or unemotional in her post, Thick Skin Pays Off in Leadership. Women are expected to be more emotional and big-hearted, and therefore may be judged more harshly than men for seeming indifferent or aloof.

Earn respect through compassion. There is an old school of thought that can be summarized as follows: To get people’s respect, you must be tough, imposing and “never let them see you sweat.” The more informed school recognizes that respect is earned through qualities such as integrity, kindness and transparency. Contrary to the old thinking, there is no honor in being labeled distant or unapproachable.

Spend time with people one-on-one. While you don’t need to ooze love and compassion, simply take time to sit down with your people for regular conversation. Find out how things are going and how you might help them succeed. Truly listen and then follow up on what you commit to do. Soon you’ll be known as one of the most caring leaders around.

Thick skin can help you thrive in a world where unkind words and adversity can’t be avoided. A big heart allows you to be yourself, help others and contribute to the greater good. Keep a healthy level of both qualities in order to avoid being overly-sensitive or emotionally distant. Otherwise, as the cartoon character Pogo quipped, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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