Brene Brown and courageous leadership

By Jane Counsel, Principal Consultant

What do you believe is the single most important quality that leaders today need to survive the future of work?

According to Brene Brown, the leading American researcher and author on vulnerability, empathy and shame, it’s courage.

Brown spoke to a packed auditorium at her Courageous Leadership workshop in Sydney last week. She told us that for the first time in her 11 years of researching emotions and their impact on leadership styles and methods, ‘courage’ had come up as the number one quality people believe is critical in an ever changing, disrupted and uncertain future of work.

“When I ask about what is the future of leadership I keep getting told the same answer – we need more courage – we must have braver leaders,” Brown says

“But when I asked leaders how do you operationalise courage, most of them didn’t know. There is a lot of language for what courage isn’t but very little language about what courage actually is.”

For those who don’t know much about Brene Brown, her 20 years of research on human emotions and their impact on how people, love, lead and parent has dispelled the common myth that vulnerability is a weakness. Brown’s work has highlighted the significant flaws in the command and control style of leadership that has been prevalent in the majority of global organisations for the past 50 years.

Brown has written five number one New York Times bestselling books on courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. Her latest book Dare to Lead was the culmination of a seven-year study on courage and leadership and from which she has developed a workshop and website of resources dedicated to helping leaders develop the skills and confidence to lead with courage.

She also has the fifth most watched Ted Talk ever called the Power of Vulnerability, which has now been viewed over 42 million times.

To say that I have a bit of a professional crush on Brown is an understatement.

Her research has completely changed the way I coach leaders on the power of being their authentic self at work. It has also helped me identify solutions to the barriers that I keep encountering in organisations that are preventing greater progress on diversity and inclusion.

I use Brown’s research everywhere I can in my coaching, training and consulting practice because it reminds leaders that first and foremost we are all human beings who hurt, love and feel deeply. We are all driven by a desire to make ‘meaning of the world’ and to connect with each other.

But often when we get into a position of leadership we put on what Brown calls our ‘armour suit’, which acts to numb our feelings as we become all too focused on protecting what people think about us.

Brown says it’s how we ‘protect when we are afraid’ that makes the difference between courageous leadership and ‘armoured’ leadership that is focused on protection, scarcity and perfectionism.

So what are the barriers to being a courageous leader? Brown’s research has identified six:

Tough conversations – we opt out of the hard conversations because we deem it ‘not in our nature to be mean to people’. But by opting out of the hard conversations we encourage ‘side conversations’, or gossiping that breeds politics and game-playing.

Fears and feelings – as leaders we have convinced ourselves that dealing with fears and feelings is ‘not’ the role of leaders. But Brown says we are kidding ourselves because ‘human beings have fears that need to be addressed’ and if we don’t address fears and feelings we will never get to the root of bad behaviour in individuals.

Stuck in setbacks – people can’t reset after failure or setback. Rather than address the issue at the heart of the setback we spend more time dealing with the setback but Brown says we need to address the issue to help the person affected reset. But we can’t teach people to reset effectively when they have already fallen. We need to help people learn the skills to get back up before they fall.

Problem solving/action bias – we often lack the vulnerability to stay in problem-solving mode after setbacks and instead jump into action bias. What action bias often generates, argues Brown, is a blame culture and not a genuine curiosity to find solutions to problems and setbacks

Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity – Brave leaders are not quiet about the hard things. Brown says that if you don’t have the courage to have the hard conversations about issues like inclusivity, diversity and equity, then you will not be leading in the next five years.

Shame and blame – Shame is a self-harm behaviour, which Brown says ‘corrodes the ability of an individual to believe they can do better’. When leaders use shame as a management tool people will disengage to self-protect.

“To opt out of hard conversations about diversity and inclusion because it makes you uncomfortable is the very definition of privilege,” Brown says.

“These conversations are hard but certainly not as hard as living under the systematic barriers that minority groups face everyday. If you are a courageous leader you lean-in to conversations about diversity and inclusion.”

Brown says the lack of courage that we are currently seeing in leadership in politics and business globally indicates how much trouble society is currently facing.

But the good news is, according to her research, courage is a skillset that is learnable, teachable and measurable.

Showing up as a courageous leader is defined by the following skillsets:

  • Rumbling with vulnerability;
  • Living into their values,;
  • Braving trust; and
  • Learning to rise.

Rumbling with vulnerability is the greatest skillset required to be a courageous or daring leader. Brown defines vulnerability as ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure’ and argues that you can’t get to courage without going through vulnerability.

“Vulnerability is the courage to show up and be seen even when you can not control the outcome,” Brown says.

Courage, empathy, trust, innovation, creativity, accountability, adaptability, inclusivity and equity are all born from vulnerability.

Brown says that living into our values is about having the right conversations as leaders instead of ‘armouring up’ to self protect. Knowing the values of people who report to you and being able to operationalise values in organisations are game changers says Brown.

Braving trust is about being clear with people you lead to be kind rather than being unclear and unkind. Being unclear, Brown argues, is only about protecting the leader. Brown says the key to braving trust is setting appropriate boundaries with team members, being reliable, taking accountability, keeping people in your confidence, having integrity, not being judgmental and showing generosity by always having an assumption of positive intent.

Finally, learning to rise is about dealing with setbacks in a constructive way by reality checking the stories we make up when bad situations arise. Brown calls this checking the conspiracies and confabulations.

“We are a meaning making species – we need to make meaning out of experiences. When something bad happens we demand a story and our brain rewards us regardless of the accuracy of our story,” Brown says.

“What do the most resilient of our leaders have in common? They have the capacity to reality check that shitty first draft of their narrative.”

I always take away a number of great insights whenever I hear Brown speak but the key one this time was the importance of choosing courage over comfort.

In a world that is becoming increasingly complex, complicated, ambiguous disconnected and displaced, courageous leadership is critical to future-proofing business success.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of some of the most critical skillsets required for modern organisations to thrive in the future of work, including trust, courage, innovation, creativity and adaptability.

It’s time to drop the armour that gets in the way of courageous or daring leadership and face into courage. As Brown says she’s never met a leader who regretted being courageous. And as ‘scary and dangerous’ as vulnerability feels to many leaders, there is nothing more scary than getting to the end of your life and regretting that you didn’t show more courage.

Brown’s observations are validated by a book The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying written by Australian nurse Bronnie Ware. Ware spent several years working in palliative care and kept a diary of the common regrets expressed by her patients before their deaths – a lack of courage came up twice on that list.

Ware observed that the number one regret of the dying was ‘not having the courage to live a life true to myself and not the life others expected of me’ and the number three top regret was not ‘having the courage to express my feelings’.

“The Future of leadership belongs to the curious. daring leadership is about doing it right versus having to be right,” Brown concludes.

If you would like to know more about how Executive Central can help you develop courageous leadership, please contact Jane using the form below.


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