8. Dare to Lead by Brené Brown (2018)

I would suspect that most people know Brené Brown through her famous Ted Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” which, as of today, and eight years after it was originally published on YouTube, has garnered over 12 million views. Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds an endowed chair, is famous for her commanding work on empathy, shame, and vulnerability. She has authored five books that reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and as my friend in Portland, Oregon reports, her books fly from the shelves of the independent bookstore he works at.

Not that Brené Brown is without controversy. Esquire listed her talk as one of the “Ten Most Annoying TED Talks,” calling her a “smooth performer,” and her self-help talk “Smug, platitudinous and all but meaningless.” Psychology Today points out that Brown’s approach to racism is limited. I point these things out because it is recognized, on occasion, that Brown’s banter, despite it’s being based on research, may strike some as not only limited but overenthusiastic.

Nevertheless, when our colleague Leigh told me she was reading Dare to Lead, I decided to tray it myself. For one, I am familiar, on a deeply personal level (as we all are) with the effects of shame on our lives. I’ve also taken the concept further in simply researching it, learning as much as I could about what shame is, culturally and so on. The same goes with vulnerability, and so I supposed I had at least a key to Brown’s book. This is only to say that I approach Brown’s work with some degree of skepticism, though I certainly find value in her work. Dare to Lead, too, is a book concerned, amongst other things, with the workplace, but it is you as a reader who should approach her ideas and decide if they do, in fact, hold true.

Because what Brown proposes is difficult. What “daring leadership” entails is becoming vulnerable, admitting you’re wrong, and ultimately finding your courage. A leader, says Brown, “takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” This sounds easy at the outset, but naturally there are obstacles. A lack of psychological safety, avoiding uncomfortable conversations, shame and blame, and more. And inertia in the work environment often serves to solidify these problems.

Brown’s answer is to “Rumble,” her term for a discussion, conversation, or meeting committed to vulnerability, from which emerges the identification of problems and their solutions. We need to be critically self-aware of how we respond: “who we are is how we lead.” A leader has to sincerely care for those she or he leads and connect with them. There’s also courage; “Be Brave” is one of our values at Capture, but what does that mean? How do we define that bravery?

Empathy is the main skill to develop. Listening actively is its hallmark. Avoiding judgment, surely one of the most difficult things to do, is crucial. The “Rumble” can allow for taking another’s perspective, for avoiding judgment, understanding the feelings of another, communicating your understanding of those feelings, and mindfulness. Brown recognizes the difficulty of this, and as she is usually wont to do, simply allows for it. “I agree to practice empathy, screw it up, circle back, clean it up, and try again,” is her mantra.

Dare to Lead acts as a workbook. Activities are scattered throughout, such as the identification of values. The values you must understand primarily are your own, and then one can move on to working with regard to the values of others. Brown is known for her stories, as well, and the book contains numerous narratives to support these concepts. She points to the need to collect “data,” to ask ourselves the pertinent questions that deny us from making up “stories” about what is actually going on. “In the absence of data,” she insists, “we will always make up stories.”

Boundaries, accountability, integrity, generosity. These are all terms we hear in the workplace, any workplace perhaps, but they are, as nouns, abstractions. What does each of these terms look like? What behaviors exemplify them? What do we focus on to move from generalizations to bona fide change not only in our organization but in ourselves? Brown offers, based on the research of her team, some answers to these questions. Her answers need to be examined critically by the reader of course, but there are valuable tools here.

Perhaps the degree of their success lies in how willing one is to be vulnerable.