For social psychologist Brené Brown, vulnerability is a strength that lies at the heart of ‘daring leadership’.
“Having to be the ‘knower’ or always being right is heavy armour,” wrote research professor and storyteller Brené Brown in a blog in 2020. “It’s defensiveness, it’s posturing, and, worst of all, it’s a huge driver of bullshit.
“It’s also very common,” she admitted. “Most of us have some degree of knower in us. Unfortunately, needing to know everything is pretty miserable for the knowers and everyone around them. It leads to distrust, bad decisions, and unnecessary, unproductive conflict.”
In an age of agile, where curiosity and learning quotient (LQ: the desire and ability to learn and seek out opportunities for development) have become core capabilities, it follows that leaders must develop ‘the courage not to know’ as a pre-cursor to showing the curiosity to find out.
It’s that armour that gets in the way of what Brown calls daring leadership. When things get tough, leaders have a choice: lean into vulnerability and get curious about the options we have, or self-protect in ways that move us away from our values.
Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. It wasn’t always a choice; we were born curious. But over time, we learn that curiosity, like vulnerability, can lead to hurt. As a result, we tend to self-protect, choosing certainty over curiosity, armour over vulnerability, and knowing over learning.
For Brown, curiosity is both an act of vulnerability and courage. Because curiosity is content without certainty and knowing all the answers, it’s not concerned with saying the right thing or knowing ahead of time how people will react. Instead, it remains focused on embracing the unknown and looking for opportunities to learn.
The power of vulnerability
If “leaning into vulnerability” sounds like a weakness, Brown begs to differ. In her 2018 book Dare to Lead – the culmination of a seven-year study into the future of leadership, plus two decades of research into courage, vulnerability, empathy and shame – she argues that vulnerability is the only path to courageous leadership, the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.
By this, she means living with uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure: daring to show up and be seen when you have no control over the outcome.
Being a clown may seem like a million miles away from this idea of courageous leadership, but, if we think about vulnerability, there are some striking parallels. Just as we lose our childlike sense of wonder when we grow up, we also lose our innate playfulness. The late Reverend Roly Bain wrote eloquently about how being a clown (yes, a dog-collar-wearing clown) tapped into this playfulness but, at the same time, vulnerability. Acting the clown gave him the seemingly paradoxical ability to show this vulnerability, to be allowed – actively encouraged – to fail in the service of a sense of “fun and fulfilment”.
In this sense, playfulness and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin. Through playfulness – like curiosity – we can imagine other experiences, open up the world to more possibilities. When a clown is faced with uncertainty, he sees it as an opportunity to explore what might happen next. Vulnerability means taking risks, but they’re risks worth taking. Being playful allows us to experiment with what we could be and do rather than just settling for the status quo. Embracing vulnerability allows for playfulness and exploration. Courageous leaders are able to do the same.
The four pillars of courageous leadership
Brené Brown’s courage is not a static trait. It’s a collection of skills that can be taught, observed and measured.
Under her theory, ‘rumbling with vulnerability’ sits alongside ‘living into our values’, ‘braving trust’ and ‘learning to rise’ as one of the four pillars of ‘courageous leadership’ – skill sets that Brown considers to be teachable, observable and measurable.
Rumbling with vulnerability
A rumble is a discussion, conversation or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability. Rumbling with vulnerability feels like being excited and afraid all at the same time. It’s about having the courage to show up fully when you can’t control the outcome and being less guarded in all your relationships and interactions. It’s not just about disclosure – as Brown says: “You don’t measure vulnerability by the amount of disclosure. Live tweeting your bikini wax – not vulnerability.” – but about being open about not having all the answers all the time.
Living into our values
We need to be clear about what we believe and check that our intentions, words and behaviours align with our beliefs. Courageous leaders are never silent about hard things and do not partake in wilful blindness.
BRAVING is Brown’s acronym for building trust, which she developed for remembering its constituent elements:
V ault (keeping secrets safe)
Braving trust is the key to connection, courage and compassion in relationship to oneself and others.
Learning to rise
Brown’s fourth pillar is about resilience and how we get back up after we fall: “If we don’t have the skills to get back up, we might not risk falling”. Learning to rise involves reckoning with our emotions and getting curious about what we’re feeling; rumbling with our stories until we reach a place of truth, and living this process every day until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives.
Daring leaders are “wholehearted”
Those who have a strong internal sense of love and belonging, and feel worthy of love and belonging from others, are characterised by Brown as “wholehearted”.
These people have the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to be kind to themselves first, and then to others, and are able to make connections as a result of authenticity. They are ready to be who they are rather than who they think they should be, and fully embrace vulnerability.
What wholehearted people have in common, therefore, is courage, compassion, connection and vulnerability. Wholehearted leaders are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, compared by Brown with unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear. She defines a leader as somebody who “takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential”. That’s a powerful underpinning for positive learning environments at work.
In practical terms, this manifests in behaviours such as making sure that people can be themselves and feel a sense of belonging; including, respecting and valuing diverse perspectives, and committing to being curious, to listening and asking questions.
Wholehearted leaders understand that trust is earned by paying attention, listening and “gestures of genuine care and connection”.
They also accept that if you’re going to dare greatly, you’re going to get your ass kicked at some point. “If you choose courage, you will absolutely know failure, disappointment, setback, even heartbreak,” pledges Brown. “That’s why we call it courage. That’s why it’s so rare.”
Even this is a positive, since Brown believes that “failure can become our most powerful path to learning if we’re willing to choose courage over comfort”. If we’re not willing to fail, we can’t innovate; if we’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, we can’t create."
Courage and curiosity
Building a vulnerable (courageous) culture involves identifying values and operationalising them within your organisation. Leaders must ‘walk the talk’, moving from lofty aspirations to specific, observable behaviours.
For example, when it comes to curiosity and the armour of ‘having to be the knower’, Brown suggests three practical strategies for dealing with this behaviour, which can be applied both to ourselves and others:
- Name the issue: ask people to work on their curiosity and critical thinking skills (“clear is kind”).
- Make learning ‘curiosity skills’ a priority: not everybody knows how to be curious.
- Acknowledge and reward great questions and instances of “I don’t know, but I’d like to find out” as daring leadership behaviours.
“Write a new ending for yourself, for the people you’re meant to serve and support, and for your culture,” urges Brown.
Or, as she also puts it, with characteristic wit: “If you’re not going to take the time to translate values from ideals to behaviours… it’s better not to profess any values at all. They become a joke. A cat poster. Total BS.”
Test your knowledge
- Explain the relationship between vulnerability and playfulness.
- Identify Brené Brown’s four pillars of courageous leadership.
What does it mean for you?
- Consider how comfortable you feel about ‘rumbling with vulnerability’. What steps might you take to improve that comfort level.
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