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  • MAP Asia Pacific Ltd

The art of being vulnerable: Now CEOs have a new skill to learn

If you had told Ryan Caldbeck, in his first job, that he would one day be crying to a room full of his employees, he might have simply told you - with the bluster characteristic of any corporate striver - that you were wrong.

But somewhere in between tumultuous markets and shifting national conversations on mental health, Caldbeck's perspective changed. In 2016, he laid off roughly 15% of his 45-person team at financial technology company CircleUp, and broke down in tears. Now, he said , he shares his feelings with colleagues more openly. He also sometimes wrestles to find the line between buttoned-up executive reticence and oversharing.

"There was a time when I went into work, and in a meeting we were going around the room saying how was your weekend, and I said, 'Oh, I got in a difficult fight with my wife,' " said Caldbeck, 43, who was previously CircleUp's CEO. "Everyone's mouth dropped. I realized I went too far. That wasn't appropriate. That's not how to show vulnerability at work."

CEOs have long studied how to deliver good news and bad news. They've trained themselves to pitch big ideas and shoot down middling ones. Now they have a new skill to learn: the art of being vulnerable. Emotional intelligence has landed atop the lists of bestselling management guides, like "Dare to Lead," by Brené Brown, whose books on vulnerability have sold well more than 1 million copies. At the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the most popular elective course, for years, has been Interpersonal Dynamics, more commonly referred to as "Touchy Feely."

"People in business are socialized to leave their feelings in the parking lot," said Carole Robin, co-author of "Connect," who used to teach "Touchy Feely." "There's a generation of leaders now - the ones that might be the really up-and-coming leaders of the future - who have discovered that actually it's almost impossible to really inspire people in the absence of feelings."

So, as companies navigate a challenging economic moment, executives are racing to let their employees know that they're not just empty suits. They're humans, with emotions, which they're sharing on Twitter, in memoirs and in all-staff meetings. But their employees aren't always benefiting from the results of all that sharing. And, in some cases, they're feeling pressured to respond to their bosses by giving up their own privacy.

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