OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, I’ve transitioned from research professor to research professor and founder and CEO. The first hard and humbling lesson? Regardless of the complexity of the concepts, studying leadership is way easier than leading.
When I think about my personal experiences with leading over the past few years, the only endeavours that have required the same level of self-awareness and equally high-level ‘comms plans’ are being married for 24 years and parenting. And that’s saying something. I completely underestimated the pull on my emotional bandwidth, the sheer determination it takes to stay calm under pressure, and the weight of continuous problem solving and decision making. Oh, yeah — and the sleepless nights.
My quasi-selfish goal in writing my most recent book — Dare to Lead — is this: I want to live in a world with braver, bolder leaders, and I want to be able to pass that kind of world on to my children.
I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential. From corporations, non-profits and public sector organizations to governments, activist groups, schools and faith communities, we desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts.
What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way
We started our interviews with senior leaders with one question: What, if anything, about the way people are leading today needs to change in order for leaders to be successful in a complex, rapidly changing environment where we’re faced with seemingly intractable challenges and an insatiable demand for innovation? There was one answer across the board: We need braver leaders and more courageous cultures. When we followed up to understand the specific ‘why’ behind the call for braver leadership, the research took a critical turn. There wasn’t just one answer. There were close to 50 answers, and many of them weren’t intuitively connected to courage. Leaders talked about everything from critical thinking and the ability to synthesize and analyze information to building trust, rethinking educational systems, inspiring innovation, finding common political ground amid growing polarization, making tough decisions, and the importance of empathy and relationship-building in the context of machine learning and artificial intelligence. We kept peeling the metaphorical onion by asking: Can you break down the specific skills that you believe underpin brave leadership?
A cultural norm of ‘nice and polite’ is often leveraged as an excuse to avoid tough conversations.
I was surprised by how much the research participants struggled to answer this question. Just under half of the leaders we interviewed initially talked about courage as a personality trait, not a skill. They typically approached the question about specific skills with a ‘Well, you either have it or you don’t’ answer. We stayed curious and kept pushing for observable behaviours: What does it look like if you have it?
Just over 80 per cent of the leaders, including those who believed that courage is behavioural, couldn’t identify the specific skills; however, they could immediately and passionately talk about problematic behaviours and cultural norms that corrode trust and courage. Luckily, the idea of ‘starting where people are’ is a tenet of both grounded theory research and social work, and it’s exactly what I do. As much time as I spend trying to understand the way, I spend ten times as much researching what gets in the way.
For example, I didn’t set out to study shame; I wanted to understand connection and empathy. But if you don’t understand how shame can unravel connection in a split second, you don’t really get connection. I didn’t set out to study vulnerability; it just happens to be the big barrier to almost everything we want from our lives, especially courage. As Marcus Aurelius taught us, “What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Here are the ten behaviours and cultural issues that leaders identified as getting in the way in organizations everywhere:
1. We avoid tough conversations, including giving honest, productive feedback. Some leaders attributed this to a lack of courage, others to a lack of skills and shockingly, more than half talked about a cultural norm of ‘nice and polite’ that’s leveraged as an excuse to avoid tough conversations. Whatever the reason, there was saturation across the data that the consequence is a lack of clarity, diminishing trust and engagement, and an increase in problematic behaviour, including passive-aggressive behaviour, talking behind people’s backs, pervasive back-channel communication (or ‘the meeting after the meeting’), gossip and the ‘dirty yes’ (when I say yes to your face and then no behind your back).
2. Rather than spending a reasonable amount of time proactively acknowledging and addressing the fears and feelings that show up during change and upheaval, we spend an unreasonable amount of time managing problematic behaviours.
3. Diminishing trust caused by a lack of connection and empathy.
4. Not enough people are taking smart risks or creating and sharing bold ideas to meet changing demands and the insatiable need for innovation. When people are afraid of being put down or ridiculed for trying something and failing, or even for putting forward a radical new idea, the best you can expect is status quo and groupthink.
5. We get stuck and defined by setbacks, disappointments and failures, so instead of spending resources on clean-up to ensure that consumers, stakeholders or internal processes are made whole, we are spending too much time and energy reassuring team members who are questioning their contribution and value.
6. Too much shame and blame, not enough accountability and learning.
7. People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusivity because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong or being wrong. Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.
8. When something goes wrong, individuals and teams are rushing into ineffective or unsustainable solutions rather than staying with problem identification and solving. When we fix the wrong thing for the wrong reason, the same problems continue to surface. It’s costly and demoralizing.
9. Organizational values are gauzy and assessed in terms of aspirations rather than actual behaviours that can be taught, measured and evaluated.
10. Perfectionism and fear are keeping people from learning and growing.
I think most of us can look at this list and quickly recognize not only the challenges in our organizations, but our own internal struggles to show up and lead through discomfort. These may be work behaviours and organizational culture concerns, but what underlies all of them are deeply human issues.
After finding the roadblocks, our job was to identify the specific courage-building skill sets that people need to address these problems. We conducted more interviews, developed instruments, and tested them with MBA and EMBA students enrolled at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. We worked until we found the answers. Then we tested it, improved it and tested it again. Here’s what we learned.
1. YOU CAN’T GET TO COURAGE WITHOUT RUMBLING WITH VULNERABILITY. EMBRACE THE SUCK.
At the heart of daring leadership is a deeply human truth that is rarely acknowledged, especially at work: Courage and fear are not mutually exclusive. Most of us feel brave and afraid at the exact same time. We feel vulnerable. Sometimes all day long. When we’re pulled between our fear and our call to courage, we need shared language, skills, tools and daily practices that can support us through the rumble.
The word rumble has become more than just a weird West Side Story way to say, ‘Let’s have a real conversation, even if it’s tough’. It’s become a serious intention and a behavioural cue or reminder. A rumble is a discussion, conversation or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts and, as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard. More than anything else, when someone says, ‘Let’s rumble’, it cues me to show up with an open heart and mind so we can serve the work and each other, not our egos.
Our research led to a very clear, very hopeful finding: Courage is a collection of four skill sets that can be taught, observed and measured. The four skill sets are:
- Rumbling with vulnerability
- Living into our values
- Braving trust
- Learning to rise
The foundational skill of courage-building is the willingness and ability to rumble with vulnerability. Without this core skill, the other three skill sets are impossible to put into practice. Consider this carefully: Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability. Once we start to build vulnerability skills, we can start to develop the other skill sets. My goal is to give you language and specifics on the tools, practices, and behaviours that are critical for building the muscle memory for living these concepts.
We’ve now tested this approach in more than 50 organizations and with approximately 10,000 individuals who are learning these skills on their own or in teams. From the Gates Foundation to Shell, from small family-owned businesses to Fortune 50 companies, to multiple branches of the U.S. military, we have found this process to have significant positive impact, not just on the way leaders show up with their teams, but also on how their teams perform.
2. SELF-AWARENESS AND SELF-LOVE MATTER. WHO WE ARE IS HOW WE LEAD.
So often we think of courage as an inherent trait; however, it is less about who people are and more about how they behave and show up in difficult situations. Fear is the emotion at the centre of that list of problematic behaviours and culture issues — it’s precisely what you’d expect to find as the underlying barrier to courage. However, all of the daring leaders we interviewed talked about experiencing many types of fear on a regular basis, which means that feeling fear is not the barrier.
The true underlying obstacle to brave leadership is how we respond to our fear. The real barrier to daring leadership is our armour — the thoughts, emotions, and behaviours that we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability. Practising self-compassion and having patience with ourselves are essential in this process.
3. COURAGE IS CONTAGIOUS. To scale daring leadership and build courage in teams and organizations, we have to cultivate a culture in which brave work, tough conversations and whole hearts are the expectation, and armour is not necessary or rewarded. If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves, including their unarmoured, whole hearts — so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people — we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard and respected.
The data made clear that care and connection are irreducible requirements for wholehearted, productive relationships between leaders and team members. This means that if we do not have a sense of caring toward someone we lead and/or we don’t feel connected to that person, we have two options: Develop the caring and connection or find a leader who’s a better fit. There’s no shame in this — we’ve all experienced the kind of disconnection that doesn’t get better despite our strongest efforts. Understanding that commitment to care and connection is the minimum threshold, we need real courage to recognize when we can’t fully serve the people we lead.
Given the reality of the world we live in today, that means leaders — you and I — must create and hold spaces that rise to a higher standard of behaviour than what we experience in the news, on TV, and in the streets. And for many, the culture at work may even need to be better than what they experience in their own home. Sometimes leadership strategies make us better partners and parents.
As I often tell teachers — some of our most important leaders — we can’t always ask our students to take off the armour at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection. But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armour, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen.
We must be guardians of a space that allows students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. They deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and where their hearts can exhale. And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong — even one — where they can take off their armour. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.
If the culture in our school, organization, place of worship, or even family requires armour because of issues like racism, classism, sexism, or any manifestation of fear-based leadership, we can’t expect wholehearted engagement. Likewise, when our organization rewards armouring behaviours like blaming, shaming, cynicism, perfectionism and emotional stoicism, we can’t expect innovative work. You can’t fully grow and contribute behind armour. It takes a massive amount of energy just to carry it around — sometimes it takes all of our energy.
The most powerful part of this process for us was seeing a list of behaviours emerge that are not ‘hardwired’. Everything I’ve been talking about is teachable, observable and measurable, whether you’re 14 or 40. For the research participants who were initially convinced that courage is determined by genetic destiny, the interview process alone proved to be a catalyst for change.
One leader told me, “I’m in my late fifties and it wasn’t until today that I realized I was taught every single one of these behaviours growing up — by either my parents or my coaches. When I get down to the nitty-gritty, I can almost remember each lesson — how and when I learned it. We could and should be teaching this to everyone.” This conversation was an important reminder to me that time can wear down our memories of tough lessons until what was once a difficult learning fades into ‘This is just who I am as a person’.
The skill sets that make up courage are not new; they’ve been aspirational leadership skills for as long as there have been leaders. Yet we haven’t made great progress in developing these skills in leaders, because we don’t dig into the humanity of this work — it’s too messy. It’s much easier to talk about what we want and need than it is to talk about the fears, feelings and scarcity (the belief that there’s not enough) that get in the way of achieving all of it.
Basically, and perhaps ironically, we don’t have the courage for real talk about courage. But it’s time. And if you want to call these ‘soft skills’ after you’ve tried putting them into practice — go for it. I dare you. Until then, find a home for your armour, and I’ll see you in the arena.
Dr. Brené Brown
holds the Huffington Foundation-Brené Brown Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work, University of Houston. The author of five #1 New York Times
bestsellers, The Gifts of Imperfection
, Daring Greatly
, Rising Strong
, Braving the Wilderness
, and her latest book, Dare to Lead
, which is the culmination of a seven-year study on courage and leadership. Brené’s TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the top five most viewed TED talks ever, with over 35 million views. She is also the first researcher to have a filmed talk on Netflix. The Call to Courage special debuted on the streaming service in April 2019.
From the book
Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. Copyright © 2018 by Brené Brown. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.
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