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Let Them See You Sweat

Never let them see you sweat? This antiquated leadership rule must go.

This is the year I'm letting go of a leadership commandment that smart people have preached to me for decades: Never let them see you sweat.

Inspiration? Yes. Motivation? Hell, yes, share it. Perspiration? Never, I was taught. Never, ever. Especially not if you're a woman. If people see you worrying, you'll be branded a nervous Nellie. That term conjures images of a woman lying on a daybed, sipping tea, and frowning while trying to avoid a breakdown. No one would see me sweat.

Then I survived the fall of 2013, when my group went through the most intense three-month change management project that I've ever experienced, as we re-launched InformationWeek.com with a new design and on a new platform. I had an endless to-do list, ambitious goals, and a team of people depending on me. If I messed up, the blame would fall on me and several close colleagues. I wasn't going to let that happen.

With about a month to go before the crucial deadline, I bought expensive face creams and started making cracks to my colleagues about a magic potion whenever they would ask about our progress.

"The project's secret sauce? I am fully stocked on wrinkle cream."

"We're all set: My face will not slide off."

"I am doing whatever it takes to avoid a non-surgical necklift."

Humor helped me cope, and it helped my colleagues cope, too.

And then I started waking up in the middle of the night. I was sweating this project.

But I kept telling myself that no one was supposed to see me sweat. During a leadership seminar a few months back, I was the one who had grouped herself squarely into the optimist camp. I had friends around me urging me on, repeating: You got this.

At about this time, the launch of the HealthCare.gov site failed spectacularly, causing lots of people at work and at home to make darkly comic cracks. Were we next? Ha ha.

But also at about this time, I had an enlightening conversation with my boss. We both had our project to-do lists, and we went over them regularly. Finally, during one of the check-ins, I blurted it out: I wasn't sleeping well. I was waking up at 2:00 in the morning and my brain was clicking through the to-do list. I was sweating it.

Guess what? He was sweating it, too.

I felt better after that conversation, but I wasn't cured yet.  

As with any project, things went wrong. There were calls where I was asked to give honest assessments of where we stood. These are the moments where you must give a realistic report. You can't sugarcoat the dangers, but you can't go too far down the path of "what if." You must give this information while trying not to be the Albert Brooks character in the famous Broadcast News scene, drowning in a perspiration river.  

After one of the last such calls, it hit me. I was spending a lot of mental energy trying not to sound sweaty. I needed that mental energy for other tasks. And it wasn't the people around me applying that pressure: It was me.

They had never known me to sound like Chicken Little, and I sure didn't now.

All the people around me were clearly sweating it. It didn't reduce my respect for them. On the contrary, it told me they cared about our mutual success. We had all taken on a complex project, the most complex project we had done together, using new tools, new processes, and teams full of people who were new to each other. This was hard work.

When I was so clearly in the midst of the hardest work that I had ever done, I was still laboring to avoid the "nervous woman" perception. A dumb priority.

So I've let this crazy goal of "never let them see you sweat" go, long past the time in my life when I should have.

I live by certain principles. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Get comfortable in your own skin. Pay it forward.

Now repeat after me: Strong people sweat.

Laurianne McLaughlin serves as InformationWeek.com's Editor-in-Chief, overseeing daily online editorial operations and strategy.