Brené Brown: Drop the Armor, Dare to Lead

Dori Meinert By Dori Meinert June 24, 2019
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LAS VEGAS—Brené Brown, renowned for her research on courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, challenged HR professionals to help cultivate brave leaders who will humanize work.

That's the type of future leaders that organizations will need to navigate the political realities, digital transformation and speed of change that organizations face, she said.

"Courage is teachable, observable and measurable. We can teach people how to be braver. We can teach people how to show up and do hard things," Brown said, speaking to more than 18,000 HR professionals attending the Society for Human Resource Management 2109 Annual Conference & Exposition on June 24.

"Leaders are called to choose courage over comfort all day long," she said.

Brown is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including her latest book, Dare to Lead (Random House, 2018), which is the culmination of a seven-year study on courage and leadership.

As a research professor at the University of Houston, she, along with her team, interviewed 150 leaders from all over the world to help identify what type of leaders organizations will need. Nearly all said the leaders of the future must be brave. But those leaders interviewed couldn't identify the skill sets required to be that type of leader, so the research team developed testing to measure the skills of brave leaders.

"What we learned is that it's not fear that gets in the way of courageous leadership," she said. "It's armor. It's what we do to self-protect when we're afraid. Because truthfully, we're all afraid and brave at the same time, all day long, every day," she said. "But, for some of us, when fear takes over, we're a wreck. We go into Transformer mode, ready for battle." Other people are aware that they're armoring for self-protection and choose to keep their shields off and remain vulnerable—and better able to lead bravely and humanely. 

Barriers to Courage

One of the chief barriers to developing courageous leaders is the inability to have tough conversations.

"We don't know how to have the hard conversations," Brown said. "People don't have that hard-conversation skill set."

Rather than talking directly to an employee about her performance issues, many leaders will avoid the subject because it makes them uncomfortable. But they'll sometimes talk about the person behind her back. Instead, they should probe to discover and reconcile the fears and feelings that lead to the undesirable behavior. It takes time to find that out, and most people are reluctant to talk about feelings at work, she said. But brave leaders will make time.

Another obstacle is people's inability to recover from their failures. "Don't ask people to be brave if you haven't taught them how to get back up," she said.

"Action bias" is another roadblock. Most people rush to "fix" a problem without first spending enough time to adequately identify what the real problem is, she said.

Issues of inclusivity, diversity and equity are difficult and sensitive topics, but brave leaders don't shy away from them. "If you can't have those conversations because they make you uncomfortable, you will not be leading in the next five years. Period," she said. "And, it's not the job of the people being targeted by discrimination to spark the conversation. That's not their job," she said, prompting applause. "Brave leaders are never quiet about hard things."

Required Skill Sets

Brown said daring leadership can be taught by developing the following four skills sets:

Rumbling with vulnerability. Most people have been taught to believe that vulnerability is a weakness. "It's hard, and it's awkward. And, we don't want to do it because we feel if we put ourselves out there, we're going to get hurt. We're going to fail. We're going to be a disappointment." Her response: "Yes, but that's courage."

Brown asked: "How can you be brave if you don't put yourself out there? You can't. … If you build a culture where vulnerability is seen as a weakness, don't ask people to innovate," she said, because innovation by its nature requires failure to learn and move forward. Vulnerability is showing up without your armor.         

Living into our values. "Our research shows that 10 percent or less of organizations hold people accountable when they violate their organization's values," she said. "It's better to not have values than to have values that are not operationalized into behaviors." Use them to interview. Use them to onboard. Use them to hold people accountable. Daring leaders know their values and hold people accountable, she said.

Braving trust. The top trust-building behavior is asking for help, Brown said, noting that her research team was shocked to find this. "We have a tendency to trust people who seek help," she said. But trust can also be built be demonstrating reliability and accountability. It also means showing generosity, which in this instance can be shown by assuming the best about people's intent, motivation and behavior.

Learning to rise. In the absence of data, people tend to speculate and make up stories to fill in the blanks. Those stories usually reflect our personal fears. The most resilient people learn to ask themselves whether, for example, a perceived slight by their boss is actually the result of something they did—or something else that affected their boss that day. They have to learn how to pick themselves back up and move on. "To learn to get back up after a fall, we have to check the mirror," she said.

In closing, Brown praised the efforts of HR professionals who face difficult problems and choices every day at work.

"People are the hardest part of work. You choose to show up every day and be brave, and meet people where they are, to fight for what's right, to build cultures of exclusivity and equity and belonging," she said. "I think you have one of the toughest, most courageous jobs of them all."

Conference attendee Monique Jenkins of Atlanta, Ga., said she was inspired by Brown's talk.

"I thought she was great, and I thought she gave really good advice about how we throw around 'we need to be brave, we need to be courageous,' but we don't tell employees how to do it. She gave a nice framework for what we mean when we talk about those words."

The big takeaway for Debbie Marr of Baltimore, Md., was the example that Brown used to illustrate how people often think every bad reaction from a co-worker or boss is a response to something they've done when, in reality, it might be unrelated to them.

"She was amazing. I really enjoyed her presentation, particularly her advice to make sure we listen to the employees if they have an issue," she said.

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