Dare to Lead
Cover & Diagrams
What does it take to be a brave and courageous leader? How can emotional responses be channeled effectively in the workplace?
In Dare to Lead, research professor Brené Brown - whose TED talk is one of the five most-watched - shares the learnable skills that underpin daring leadership, and shows how embracing vulnerability helps you to lead even when you aren't sure of the outcome.
Once you embrace the power of vulnerability, you can stop avoiding difficult conversations and being afraid to accept new ideas and start trusting and building resilience.
Top 20 insights
- Research professor Brené Brown interviewed hundreds of global C-level leaders over a twenty-year period. Her research shows that there are four learnable skills that underpin daring leadership: embracing vulnerability, living core values, braving trust, and developing resilience.
- A daring leader is someone who takes up the responsibility to find the potential in people, and who is committed to develop that potential.
- Brown's TED talk, "The Power of Vulnerability," is one of the top five most-viewed TED talks in the world. She defines embracing vulnerability as having the courage to show up when you can't be sure of the outcome.
- In the words of Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics: "In the past, jobs were about muscles, now they're about brains, but in the future they'll be about the heart."
- Trust holds teams and organizations together. Companies with high levels of trust beat the average annualized returns of the S&P500 by a factor of three.
- Doug R. Conant says that inspiring trust was his priority in his ten-year turnaround of Campbell Soup Company: "[T]rust is the one thing that changes everything. It's not a nice-to-have, it's a must-have. Without it, every part of your organization can fall, literally, into disrepair."
- There are seven behaviors that build trust over time: boundaries, reliability, accountability, vault, integrity, nonjudgement, and generosity, i.e., braving.
- Learning resilience must come first. Leaders invariably try to teach resilience skills to their teams after there's been a setback or failure. But that's like trying to teach a skydiver how to land after they've hit the ground or even as they're in freefall.
- Brown's team asked a thousand leaders to list behaviors that earn team-members positive recognition. The most common answer: asking for help.
- Google's five-year study of highly productive teams found that the most important dynamic that set successful teams apart was psychological safety—team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
- Research shows that leaders must either invest time attending to fears and feelings, or spend more time trying to manage unproductive and ineffective behavior. If a manager is addressing the same problematic behaviors over and over, s/he may need to dig deeper into the thinking and feeling driving those behaviors.
- One way to cultivate commitment and a shared organizational purpose is to adopt the TASC approach to projects and strategies: Task, Authority, Success, Checklist.
- Shame is a universal emotion that we all try to avoid. In the workplace shame manifests as favoritism, gossiping, harassment, perfectionism, and cover-ups. The opposite of shame is empathy, connecting to the emotions that underpin someone's experience.
- Curiosity about different views and how they may come into conflict—asking questions and reaching out for more information—is essential for building daring leadership. A study in Neuron suggests that brain chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us to better learn and retain information.
- Daring leadership needs clear values that the leader lives by every day. Melinda Gates says that tying tactics to core values and then explaining them to others makes a leader better able to question their own assumptions.
- The key to operationalizing core values across the company or workplace is to be very clear on the skills that undergird those values. Set clear expectations for everyone to create a shared language and a well-defined culture.
- Brown's research shows that leaders who are trained in resilience are more likely to embrace courageous behaviors, because they know how to get back up after a fall. People who don't have the skills to get back up are less likely to risk falling.
- Teaching how to embrace failure as a learning opportunity is especially important today, when millennials make up 35% of the American workforce.
- The most effective strategy for recognizing an emotion is to practice what soldiers call Tactical Breathing.
- As a leader, it's important to recognize that people will make up their own stories during a time of upheaval or stress, and without data they will start with their own fears and insecurities. The daring leader gives people as much data and facts as possible so that their stories are more complete.
To be a daring leader, one who is not afraid of change and new challenges, you must embrace vulnerability, recognizing it not as a form of weakness but as a willingness to acknowledge when you don't know all the answers. Instead of protecting the ego by avoiding difficult situations, embrace vulnerability by encouraging empathy, curiosity, and shared purpose. Operationalize the organization's core values; and, build trust by setting clear boundaries and being reliable and generous. Build resilience by recognizing when a situation or emotion has a hold over you; learn how to recognize and accept the emotion and create a story that you can control.
Research professor Brené Brown and her team have amassed twenty years of interview data with global C-level leaders on the future of leadership, asking what it takes to be a daring leader. These senior leaders identified a common set of problems that get in the way of developing their organizations: avoiding difficult conversations, being afraid to accept new ideas, and not enough trust or accountability. The issue is not who people are, but how they behave in difficult situations; in particular, how they respond to fear.
Based on all this interview data, the author concludes that courage is a collection of four skill sets, which are all teachable and observable: embracing vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust, and developing resilience. Brown's team has tested this approach to daring leadership in more than 50 organizations from the Gates Foundation to Shell. They concluded that the core skill needed for daring leadership is the willingness and ability to embrace vulnerability—without this, the other three skills are impossible to practice.
Brown's TED talk, "The Power of Vulnerability," is one of the top five most-viewed TED talks in the world. Brown says that embracing vulnerability means having the courage to show up when you can't be sure of the outcome. No-one can get to courage without dealing with vulnerability.
What is vulnerability?
Brown defines vulnerability as the emotion we experience during times of risk, uncertainty, and exposure. It is not a question of winning or losing but of showing up when you don't know the outcome. Vulnerability does not mean weakness and it isn't something we can avoid—as a species, we are hardwired to want to connect. Trust and vulnerability grow together, over time. Marriage expert John Gottman PhD has found that trust is "built in very small moments." If we avoid connection with others and shield ourselves from feedback, we stop growing. And, if we define ourselves by what others think of us, it's hard to be brave. But, if we stop caring about what anyone thinks, we're too locked away in our armor to make authentic connections.
Google conducted a five-year study of highly productive teams, Project Aristotle, and found that the most important dynamic that set successful teams apart was psychological safety—team members feeling safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson coined the term "Psychological Safety": it is not a cozy situation where everyone is close friends, but rather an environment where people believe that if they make a mistake they won't be judged or punished for it.
An important component of vulnerability is setting boundaries, defining what is and is not OK. A leader who shares without understanding their role and its professional boundaries is just venting, purging, or making a play for sympathy. Similarly, we can set boundaries on tough conversations: "It's OK to be angry right now, it's not OK to yell" or, "It's OK to be passionate about this, it's not OK to interrupt or put people down."
Research shows that leaders must either invest time attending to fears and feelings, or spend even more time trying to manage unproductive and ineffective behavior. If a manager is addressing the same problematic behaviors over and over, s/he may need to dig deeper to the thinking and feeling driving those behaviors. A leader cannot, and should not, avoid the difficult conversations.
Daring vs armored leadership
Minouche Shafik, Director of the London School of Economics, says: "In the past, jobs were about muscles, now they're about brains, but in the future they'll be about the heart."
Many organization and leaders still believe that if the connection between the heart (vulnerability and other emotions) and work is cut, then people will be more productive and easier to manage. But, imprisoning the heart kills courage. And, when people are cut off from their emotions, they lose control over their decision making and behavior.
People reach for the emotional armor when they think there's a risk they may not be liked or respected because they are wrong or don't have all the answers. It's a way to protect the ego. Armored leadership drives perfectionism and fosters fear of failure; it emphasizes being right, using power over others, and control. It tolerates discrimination and a "fitting in" culture, uses criticism as self-protection, and is all about collecting gold stars. Armored leaders try to fill a gap in their self-worth by using their power.
Daring leadership encourages and models healthy striving, empathy, and self-compassion; it emphasizes being a learner, using power with others, and cultivating shared purpose. It cultivates a culture of belonging and inclusivity, of making contributions and taking risks, and is all about giving gold stars. Daring leaders are curious about their own blind spots and are committed to helping others find their own blind spots in supportive ways.
One way to cultivate commitment and a shared purpose is to adopt the TASC approach to projects and strategies:
T: Who owns the Task?
A: Do they have the Authority to be held accountable?
S: Are they set up for Success (time, clarity, resources)?
C: Is there a Checklist of what needs to happen to accomplish the task?
Empathy vs shame
Building emotional armor around our ego does not protect us from feeling unworthy, disconnected, or isolated—It in fact guarantees all of those feelings. One emotion we all try to avoid is shame. Yet it is also a universal experience, the awful feeling that we are flawed and unworthy of love and connection. Shame says, "You are bad." It is not the same as guilt, which says "You did something bad;" or humiliation, which says "They deserve to suffer;" or embarrassment, which is fleeting and even, eventually, funny.
In Brown's interviews a surprisingly large 85% of respondents recalled a childhood incident so shaming that it changed how they thought about themselves. As adults, one of the most common scenarios was the shame people felt when they were fired. In the workplace shame shows up as favoritism, gossiping, harassment, perfectionism, and cover-ups.
The opposite of experiencing shame is experiencing empathy. We cannot resist shame, but we can build resilience to it by cultivating empathy. Whereas sympathy is feeling for someone, empathy is feeling with someone, connecting to the emotions that underpin their experience. Empathy is choosing to connect with others by seeing the world as they see it, being nonjudgmental, and making it clear that you understand the other person's feelings. It starts with being able to name and talk about our own feelings.
Empathy is something we can get better at, with practice. It starts with recognizing what shame feels like and what triggers it; followed by reaching out to others rather than hiding away. It also means picking up on the ways people encourage shame in others: using phrases like, "You're so sensitive," or "It's all in your head."
Curiosity and courage
Curiosity is correlated with creativity, improved learning, and problem solving. A study in the October 22, 2014 issue of the journal Neuron suggests that brain chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us to better learn and retain information. Curiosity is also essential for building daring leadership—being curious about different views and how they may come into conflict, asking questions, and reaching out for more information.
Daring leadership means having the courage to check our ego-armor at the door and being curious enough to engage in tough conversations. It also means having clear values, not just sound bites but values that the leader actually lives with every day.
Living into our values means making sure our intentions, words, and behaviors align with those beliefs. Step one in learning how to do this is to name the two values that you hold most important both at work and at home—things like accountability, belonging, diversity, fairness, joy, patience, service, or truth. Come up with a list of values and hone it down to the two that really resonate. Then, define the three or four behaviors that support those core values, and the three or four that don't.
One of the hardest things to do in the workplace is to stay aligned with our values when giving or receiving feedback. Being in the right frame of mind to give someone feedback requires: being willing to sit next to them, not across from them; accepting the need to listen and ask questions; and acknowledging their strengths and thanking them for their efforts, not just listing their mistakes. Giving feedback means holding accountable without shaming or blaming and talking about how resolving challenges will lead to growth.
Receiving feedback is tough because we cannot control the skill of the person giving it or know what their intentions really are. Tactics that can help include reminding yourself that you are brave enough to listen; that you can take what is valuable here and leave the rest; and that this is the path to mastery. Your ultimate aim is to listen, to integrate the feedback, and to reflect it back with accountability.
When values are operationalized across the whole company, they drive productive decision-making; without those values, either paralysis or impulsive decision-making can set in. The key to operationalizing core values across the company or workplace is to be very clear on the skills that undergird those values. Setting clear expectations for everyone will help to create a shared language and a well-defined culture.
Melinda Gates notes that people can get attached to specific tactics but "when you're forced to tie those tactics to core values and then explain them to others, you are better able to question your own assumptions and help others question theirs."
The importance of trust
Trust is the glue that holds teams and organizations together. Doug R. Conant wrote a Harvard Business Review article describing how inspiring trust was his number one mission in his ten-year turnaround of Campbell Soup Company. He noted that companies with high levels of trust beat the average annualized returns of the S&P500 by a factor of three. "[T]rust is the one thing that changes everything. It's not a nice-to-have, it's a must-have. Without it, every part of your organization can fall, literally, into disrepair."
Trust is essential in any organization, and we all want to be thought trustworthy. But because talking about trust can be tough, most leaders shy away from having conversations about it.
There are seven behaviors that make up trust, summarized by the acronym BRAVING. Each of these behaviors leads to small moments that, stacked up over time, build trust.
- Boundaries: Respect them and ask if it's not clear what they are.
- Reliability: Do what you say you will do and don't over-promise.
- Accountability: Own your mistakes.
- Vault: Don't share information or confidences that are not yours to share.
- Integrity: Choose courage over comfort; choose what's right over what's easy, fun, or fast.
- Non-judgement: Ask for help without judgement.
- Generosity: Extend the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.
Leaders invariably try to teach resilience skills to their teams after there's been a setback or failure. That's like trying to teach a skydiver how to land after they've hit the ground or even as they're in freefall. Brown's research shows that leaders who are trained in resilience are more likely to embrace courageous behaviors, because they know how to get back up after a fall. People who don't have the skills to get back up are less likely to risk falling. Teaching how to embrace failure as a learning opportunity is especially important today, when millennials make up 35% of the American workforce.
In her work, Brown has found that leaders who demonstrate the highest level of resilience use sentences such as, "The story I'm telling myself..." or "I make up that ..." It's a way of walking into our story and owning it. When you own your story like this, you get to write the ending.
To learn resilience, start by recognizing when a situation or emotion has its hooks in you. A lot of the time, we end up offloading our emotions onto others, getting angry instead of acknowledging hurt, pretending everything is fine when it really isn't, or hiding away the pain instead of facing it.
The most effective strategy for recognizing an emotion is something that soldiers call Tactical Breathing: inhale deeply through the nose for a count of four; hold the breath for another count of four; exhale slowly through the mouth for a count of four; and hold the empty breath for a final count of four. Tracing a square on your desk while doing each of the four stages can also help to calm you down and re-center when in the grip of a strong emotion.
In the absence of data, we always make up stories. And, when it comes to our emotions, the first story we make up, the one that's based on very little real data, is filled with all of our fears and insecurities.
At a personal level, start by writing down a first story—"She looked at me like that in the meeting because she doesn't trust me and I'm going to get kicked off this project"—then ask if this story actually makes sense. What else do you need to know about the situation, the people in it, and your own role in the story. Now you can pinpoint what you are really feeling and why and figure out how to deal with it.
As a leader, it's important to recognize this; during a time of upheaval or stress, give people as much data and facts as possible so that their stories are more complete. Clear is kind and helps to damp down the conspiracy theories.