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 armor,” wrote research professor and storyteller Brené Brown, in a blog in February 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 LQ (the desire and ability to learn and seek out opportunities for development) has become a core capability, it follows that leaders must develop ‘the courage ‘not to know’.
“It’s not fear that gets in the way of daring leadership; it’s armor,” asserts Brown. “When things get tough, do we lean into vulnerability and get curious, or do we self-protect in ways that move us away from our values?”
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 courage.
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.
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. To explain:
- 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 unguarded in all your relationships and interactions. As Brown says: “You don’t measure vulnerability by the amount of disclosure. Live tweeting your bikini wax – not vulnerability.”
- Living into our values involves being clear about what we believe and checking that our intentions, words and behaviours align with our beliefs. Courageous leaders are never silent about hard things and do not partake in willful 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 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 – features which should also be at the centre of leadership.
“We desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear,” says Brown.
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”.
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 listening and asking questions.
Wholehearted leaders understand that “trust is earned in the smallest of moments… through 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 you're not willing to fail, you can't innovate,” she explains. “If you're not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can't create."
Creating a courageous culture
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, if we return 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 to oneself or 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 behaviors… it’s better not to profess any values at all. They become a joke. A cat poster. Total BS.”
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