Dare to Lead

Dare to Lead:  Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts
By Brené Brown
Random House, New York, 2018

Brené Brown’s latest book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, is about courage.  The book is pitched towards managers and executives to help them build the courage they need to lead their organizations.  But I think the book could just as easily have been called Dare to Live because it applies to many aspects of our lives. 

Brené Brown is a research professor in social work at the University of Houston.  She’s spent about twenty years researching vulnerability, shame, courage and empathy.  I first heard of her when I saw her 2010 TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability

Dare to Lead builds on several of her earlier books including Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, and on seven years of research into courage and leadership.   

Brown defines a leader as:

“… anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and who has the courage to develop that potential.”  [p. 4]

Leadership isn’t about power, or titles or promotions.  It’s about courage. 

It turns out courage isn’t some innate quality that you’re either born with or not.  Courage can be developed.  Brown teaches us four skills needed for courage:

  • Rumbling with vulnerability
  • Living into our values
  • Braving trust
  • Learning to rise

I’ll take a brief look at each of these and then circle back to a few themes from the book that I found especially important.

Rumbling with vulnerability

The core skill for building courage is the ability to “rumble with vulnerability.”  This is such a key concept that I want to unpack its meaning.

First, when Brené Brown uses the word “rumble” she’s not referring to some kind of West Side Story street brawl between rival gangs.  Rather, it’s a kind of conversation, a tough, potentially contentious and emotionally loaded conversation.  One that requires courage and also curiosity and generosity and the will to lean in to vulnerability.  It could be about an important business decision, a performance review, or about the division of chores at home.  I think a rumble is a lot like the “crucial conversations” described in the book of that name by Kerry Patterson and his associates (book, review). 

Next, Brown defines vulnerability as,

“…the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”  [p. 19]

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.” [p. 19]

In her 2010 TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, she says,

“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”  [12:30]

You can’t be courageous without being vulnerable, she tells us. 

Rumbling with vulnerability, then, is a commitment to having the tough, contentious, emotionally loaded conversations not just in spite of our vulnerability, but fully embracing it.  Just over half the book is devoted to learning how to do this.

Living into our values

Living into our values, the second skill for courageous leadership, means aligning our thoughts, words and actions with our values.

“A value is a way of being or believing that we hold most important.” [p. 186] 

First we have to identify our values.  There’s an exercise in the book to help you do this.  You’re asked to pick at most two values from a list of about 120.  Usually I skip over these sorts of exercises or self-tests but I went through with this one and I’m glad I did.  I started by circling about fifteen of the values.  I found I could cluster them together pretty easily into just a few groups.  For example, I put the values of learning, competence, truth, wisdom, curiosity, and humility together in one group.  From each group I then selected the one that I felt was the source or the driver for all the others.  In the end I arrived at curiosity and reliability as my two core values. 

I wouldn’t say the exercise was a great revelation, but distilling the list down to just two values did leave me with some newfound clarity. 

The next step is aligning our behaviors with our values.  There’s another exercise for this:  identifying two or three of your behaviors that support or align with your values, and two or three that undermine or wriggle away from them. 

Regardless of your values, Brown says,

“… daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”  [p. 194]

Our values must be our guiding lights that tell us how to act and lead.  When we’re faced with a tough decision, or a tough conversation, it’s our values that should point the way.  Living into our values takes courage. We do not always succeed.  Brown says that to support us in this work we need help: empathy from one or two people who know us really well, and self-compassion – being generous and caring towards ourselves when we fail or feel inadequate.

Braving trust

We can’t rumble with vulnerability if we don’t trust the people we’re rumbling with.  If we get even the slightest hint of untrustworthiness, we shut down, raise shields, and put on our battle armor. 

But what are trust and distrust?  Brown uses the definitions from The Thin Book of Trust, by Charles Feltman. 

Trust is “… choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.”  [p. 221]

Distrust is deciding that, “what is important to me is not safe with this person in this situation (or any situation).” [ibid.]

She presents an inventory of behaviors for building trust.  It has the convenient acronym “BRAVING”: 

  • Boundaries – respecting each other’s boundaries
  • Reliability – doing what you say you’ll do
  • Accountability – owning your mistakes
  • Vault – keeping confidences
  • Integrity – living into our values, choosing courage over comfort
  • Non-judgement – so that we can ask each other for help without fear of being judged
  • Generosity – giving the most generous possible interpretations to the actions and intentions of others, also known as assuming positive intent

In order to trust other people, it’s necessary that we first trust ourselves.  So the BRAVING inventory should also be used as a tool to develop self-trust.

Learning to rise

Last but not least, to build courage we need to know how rise, how to get back up after we’ve fallen.  The failures and setbacks we encounter in work and life can be large or small: a project we’re leading misses a deadline; we don’t get the promotion we were hoping for; someone says something snarky at a meeting or at home and we take it personally.

Our first reactions are typically emotional and the first step to rising is recognizing that we’ve been triggered, that something has set us off.  When that happens we need to get calm and then get curious.

To regain calm, Brown recommends breathing, specifically box breathing, a technique used in mindfulness meditation and apparently by Navy SEALs.    

Brown notes that in the absence of data our minds will inevitably make up stories to fill in the gaps.  Those stories are often driven by our worst emotions — fear, anger and shame.  We make up worst-case scenarios.  We catastrophize.  If we’re not careful, our made-up stories can spin out of control into full-blown conspiracy theories.  Borrowing a term from writer Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, Brown calls these stories shitty first drafts.  She suggests we actually write down our shitty first drafts and then ask ourselves, “What more do I need to know about the current situation, the other people involved, and myself?” 

Then get curious. Talk, or rather rumble, with others to get the answers and fact-check our stories.  Start by saying, “The story I’m telling myself is…”  That way you’re taking ownership of your stories and you’re asking for help rather than making accusations. 

Knowing how to get back up helps give us the courage to dare. 

Shame and empathy

Brené Brown started her research career looking into vulnerability, shame, and empathy and these themes are woven through Dare to Lead.  I think they’re a really important part of the book.  I’ve covered vulnerability earlier so I’ll just mention some highlights about shame and empathy here. 

Shame is the fear of disconnection. 

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” [p. 126]  

It’s universal; the only people who never feel shame are sociopaths.

Shame is different from guilt and humiliation.  Shame makes you feel, “I am bad,” while guilt makes you feel, “I did something bad,” and humiliation is what you feel when something bad happens to you that you didn’t deserve. 

The opposite of shame and the antidote for shame is empathy.  Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings and experiences of others.  Ir’s different from sympathy.  “Empathy is feeling with people.  Sympathy is feeling for them.”  Empathy builds trust and increases connection. 

Brown says that showing empathy to someone helps dispel their shame, but it takes skill. We need to take their perspective, to see the world as they see it.  We need to become the learner, not the knower, to truly understand another’s perspective.  We also need to be non-judgmental.  We have to try to understand the other person’s feelings and communicate our understanding back to them.

Shame says, “I’m never good enough.”  Empathy says, “you’re not alone.”

Okay, so what do shame and empathy have to do with leadership and organizational cultures, the focus of Dare to Lead?

Shame drives behaviors like perfectionism, bullying, harassment, blaming and cover-ups that not only contribute to a toxic organizational culture but are also the opposite of daring leadership.  It creates an environment where people don’t feel safe, don’t trust each other and cannot rumble with vulnerability.  Teaching people empathy skills, on the other hand, builds connection and trust and enables daring leadership.

Unsolicited Feedback

Dare to Lead is a “full stack” book about leadership.  It looks at leadership from psychological, behavioral and organizational angles.  More broadly, it’s about how to build healthy, trusting, fruitful relationships with others, whether they’re colleagues, friends or family members. 

I’ve tried to highlight the ideas I found the most important, but I know I need to re-read the book a couple more times to get the most out of it. 

I really like the central ideas of the book, that leadership requires courage, and courage requires vulnerability.  It’s not just the courage to make big, bold bets, or to strike out in new directions.  Yes those are important, but the courage Brené Brown is talking about in Dare to Lead is more about the courage to have tough conversations, give clear feedback, hold people accountable, learn from failure and setbacks without blaming, tackle sensitive issues like diversity and harassment, and to do all that in the full knowledge and acceptance of our own vulnerability. 

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