Speaking at the Annual SHRM conference in Las Vegas yesterday, author, and researcher Dr. Brené Brown sought to examine and define what courageous leadership looks like, and how to best embody this definition. A five-time New York Times number 1 bestselling author and star of her own Netflix documentary, ‘The Call to Courage’, Dr. Brené Brown spoke extensively about her research, encompassing aspects such as vulnerability, empathy, accountability, and trust. She honed in on the need for brave leaders, as well as the somewhat unexpected definition of what it truly means to be “courageous” in the workplace and beyond.
Dr. Brown began her talk by revealing how she and her team had asked 150 leaders from around the world what the future of leadership was. These leaders came from every sector you could imagine - “from special forces in the military to oil and gas in Singapore to engineers in DC.” The overwhelming response from all these organizations was the need for more courage, Dr. Brown said. “We need brave leaders,” Brown outlined. “We need people to build more courageous cultures [...] brave leaders who will re-humanize work.”
Interestingly, about half of these leaders said there was no skill-set for “courage” - you either have brave leaders or you don’t. Looking to counter this opinion, Dr. Brown drew on her over 20 years of research to establish what a courageous leader didn’t look like, rather than what it did. As Dr. Brown observed, people are better at “language about what isn’t, but not good about language that is.”
So, what does courageous leadership not look like?
- We don’t know how to have hard conversations. “We’re really polite and nice.” When we’re angry, instead of talking to people, we talk about them.
- Not attending to fears and feelings - very few people have the courage to be direct and say, “here’s what’s ok, here’s what’s not ok.”
- Steps and setbacks - after errors, “we spend 20% of our time fixing mistakes and 80% of the time reassuring the people who were at the helm of that mistake that they’re worthy, pulling them out of the problem.”
- Problem-solving and action bias - “when we default to taking action to fix problems” quickly, rather than identifying the root of that problem.
- Inclusivity, diversity and equity. “If you can’t have these conversations [about diversity] because they make you uncomfortable, you will not be leading in the next five years,” Dr. Brown said, adding that, “It’s not the job of the people being targeted by discrimination to spark the conversation.”
- Corroding trust and disengagement. Dr. Brown called out toxic activities such as “favoritism and gossip” as being instrumental in eroding trust in the workplace.
Taking this information, Dr. Brown and her team looked to create a skillset, one that developed and tested the creation of courageous leaders.
Courage is teachable, observable, measurable & starts by letting go of your armor
Contrary to what some of the 150 leaders might think, Dr. Brown doesn’t believe courage is something you either have or you don’t. Nor does she believe courage is defined by the absence of fear. “Leaders are called to choose courage over comfort every day,” Dr. Brown said. You might be led to believe “fear” is the greatest obstacle to courageous leadership, but it’s not: leaders interviewed revealed they “are afraid all day every day”. In fact, it’s what we do to “self-protect” against that fear that is the obstacle to courageous leadership. This is known as the “armor”.
What does this armor look like?
- Perfectionism - this comes from a fear of failure, our desire for complete approval, the belief that if we do everything perfectly, we can avoid pain.
- Scarcity - saying “we can’t, we don’t have enough.”
- Always knowing - using the armor of having to “be right” rather than looking to “make it right”.
- Cynicism, that fearful voice that says “I don’t care, this is never going to work.”
- Weaponising fear, instead of using it as a driving force.
- Hustling for validation - this can be countered by “knowing your value”. “When people are not clear about their value,” Dr. Brown elaborates, it can lead to huge issues.
Four skillsets of courage
Examining this idea further, Dr. Brown then outlined the four skillsets of courage:
Rumbling with vulnerability
Dr. Brown stressed the need to live and come to terms with the “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” that is an inherent part of life. “There is no courage without vulnerability.” If we put ourselves out there, “we’re going to fail, we’re going to get hurt,” and while that’s true, that’s what courage is about. “If you build an organization where vulnerability is seen as a weakness, you cannot ask your team to create and innovate.” As Dr. Brown pointed out, there is so little you can achieve without risk. “[Vulnerability] is the prerequisite for every meaningful emotional experience in our lives.” Dr. Brown asks, “So why do we work so hard to press it down?”
Living into our values
What does integrity mean? All organizations have values, but the key part is integrating those values into “observable behaviors” and holding people “accountable for those behaviors”. We should translate values into behaviors, and then use these values to interview potential candidates. These behaviors can roughly be categorized as follows: Things you’re promoted for, things you’re given money for & things you’re fired for.
These values should be talked about and reiterated in all meetings. Dr. Brown goes on to say, “It’s better to not have values than to have values that are not operationalized into behaviors.”
“Conversations about trust are incredibly difficult,” Dr. Brown said, because they are seen “as an assault on character”. However, Dr Brown says “trust” can be broken down into the following acronym, BRAVING:
- Boundaries - be clear about your boundaries and respect those of others.
- Reliability - you do what you’re going to say.
- Accountability - not pointing the finger, taking accountability and holding others accountable.
- Vault - understanding the two sides of confidentiality, not sharing what isn’t yours to share.
- Integrity - practice your values. Do what’s right rather than what’s fast, easy or fun.
- Non-judgement - you can ask for help if you’re in over your head, and not be judged for it.
- Generosity - do you extend your most generous assumption towards others, and assume the best about them?
Learning to rise
“When something difficult happens, our brain is wired to make up a story,” Dr Brown outlines. “In the absence of data, we make up stories.” These stories always highlight our fears and shame, because that is how we protect ourselves. According to Dr. Brown, we should learn to rise beyond these negative stories we tell ourselves and have the courage to “check-in” and clarify our doubts with our colleagues before drawing conclusions about what their behaviors could mean.
In her closing remarks, Dr Brown stated that while “people are the hardest part of work” they “truly are all we have”. It is crucial, therefore, that we continue to have these uncomfortable, awkward conversations, that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable; that organizations have actionable values and that we rise above the negative narratives we build in order for self-protection. An inspiring, heartfelt and illuminating talk, Dr. Brown left the stage to rapturous applause.