Brené Brown makes the case for vulnerability in Dare To Lead
Last updated September 21, 2021
Editor’s note: So much great business advice, so little time to read. That’s why each month we’re reading a business book or bestseller so that you don’t have to. We’ll give you the gist, you’ll take away a few key points and, if inspired, you can rush to your local bookseller.
Mindfulness: the concept has steadily crept into the business world over the past four decades as leaders have sought new (or in this case, old) ways to manage stress, unlock creativity, and build better work cultures. But Brené Brown, author of bestsellers such as Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, bristles at the term, preferring “paying attention.”
A Texan with a highly tuned bullshit meter, Brown—a University of Houston research professor who studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy—may tweak the nomenclature around mindfulness and attention so that it’s tied less directly to the Buddhist concept of sati, but the idea remains similar: leading well takes thoughtful and focused awareness. In her latest book, Dare To Lead, the down-to-earth researcher turns mountains of data into a quartet of skills that can allow courage to blossom throughout an organization.
Those skills—rumbling with vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust, and learning to rise—at first blush can sound less like actionable skills than marketing speak aimed at moving copies in airport bookshops. But Brown isn’t trafficking in easy platitudes here; she’s putting forth clear guidelines about how to communicate, build trust, and find courage when negative emotions like shame threaten to derail it all.
The skinny: This book is the culmination of research and interviews with “leaders, change makers, and culture shifters,” translated into teachable skills. Brown posits that courage can be taught and leaders can—and should be—vulnerable.
Who should read it? Anyone in a leadership role or who aspires, or dares, to lead.
Quote we liked:
As Brown argues, “Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” If that sounds a bit touchy-feely, then consider this: have you ever worked in an environment in which the primary motivating factor was fear? And how did that work out?
Those skills-rumbling with vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust, and learning to rise-at first blush can sound less like actionable skills than marketing speak aimed at moving copies in airport bookshops.
In Dare To Lead, Brown talks extensively about workplace cultures that reward exhaustion as a status symbol, in which self-worth is measured by productivity. The alternative? Supporting rest, play, and recovery. That’s a tough argument to make, especially in Silicon Valley—just ask any engineer toiling in the video game industry—but anyone who has worked for a company that drives employees to burn out will understand just how toxic that is to both workers and to the company’s long-term viability.
The starting point that leads toward fostering a healthier workplace begins with “rumbling with vulnerability,” to which Brown dedicates a large chunk of the book. While vulnerability isn’t “the first step to betrayal,” she argues, it’s also not about oversharing. Boundaries are important, and thoughtful leaders—those who open their hearts to their team members—need to set boundaries about what’s okay to share. She writes, “Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability. It might be fear or anxiety. We have to think about why we’re sharing and, equally important, with whom. What are their roles? What is our role? Is this sharing productive and appropriate?”
She stresses that vulnerability is not a sympathy-seeking tool, something used to manipulate and shirk responsibility. Ironically, Brown readily admits to feeling resistance to vulnerability while recognizing the role shame plays in her own behavior—a bit of personal candor that humanizes Brown while reinforcing the idea that embracing vulnerability doesn’t come easy.
If you’re a cynic—which Brown describes as a “numbing” behavior that destroys vulnerability—then fully engaging in this book might be tough sell, at least at first. But cynicism, along with viewing business as a zero-sum game, weaponizing fear and uncertainty, and tolerating discrimination, are all unhealthy means of self-protection that lead to armored leadership.
“The irony across all self-protection is that at the same time as we’re all worrying about machine learning and artificial intelligence taking jobs and dehumanizing work, we’re intentionally or unintentionally creating cultures that, instead of leveraging the unique gifts of the human heart like vulnerability, empathy, and emotional literacy, are trying to lock those gifts away,” Brown writes.
She talks about the concept of trust using the metaphor of a jar filled with marbles—that the seemingly small, everyday acts of kindness and vulnerability build trust one marble at a time, strengthening connection. Betraying that trust costs a whole handful of marbles. “It is earned not through heroic deeds, or even highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of genuine care and connection,” Brown says.
Frank Herbert once wrote in Dune that “fear is the mind-killer”; for Brown, shame is the courage-killer. And evidence that shame is doing its worst is all around, whether it’s selling vaporware or fudging emissions numbers. As Brown argues, shame—“I’m not good enough, I’m an imposter, I’m a failure”—constantly undermines the important skills needed to lead well.
“Don’t let what looks like a bloated ego and narcissism fool you into thinking there’s a lack of shame. Shame and fear are almost always driving that unethical behavior. . . I define narcissism as the shame-based fear of being ordinary,” she writes. In that context, it’s difficult to not see that statement as an oblique comment on any number of leaders—including the current occupant of the White House.