In her most recent research project, Brené Brown asked 150 leaders one big question:
What does the future of leadership look like? Or, as she put it before an audience of 7,500 at the Texas Conference for Women this November: Who will still be standing, and who will be gone, in five years from now?
The question is a significant one, given the complexity of problems and rate of change we are witnessing today, she noted. And across all sectors, one clear answer came back: “Everyone said we have to have braver leaders.”
The good news, she was quick to add, is that courageous leadership is a skill set that can be learned. So how, in the words of her new book, do we Dare to Lead?
In her usual straight-shooting way, Brown first identified common practices that reflect the need for more courageous leadership. Among them:
- People are not having hard conversations. When asked why aren’t you having tough conversations at work, most people said: We have a culture of nice and polite. And when asked what do you do when you’re mad or frustrated, people said: We talk [gossip] about them. “That’s not nice and polite,” she observed. “We need to learn how to show up and look people in the eye and be truthful.”
- People are not attending to the fears and feelings of others. As a leader, Brown said: “You can either lean in and attend to the fears and feelings of others, or you will have to spend time playing whack-a-mole with people’s bad behavior.”
- People get stuck in setbacks. “I expect people to fail and make mistakes,” she said, “because I expect people to stretch.” But when cultures don’t accept failure, people are likely to do anything to avoid it—and innovation, too. We have to teach people how not to get stuck.
Inclusivity, equity and diversity—and the future of leadership
“If you are not willing to have conversations [about inclusivity, equity and diversity,] you will not be leading in the next five years,” Brown said. “It’s not going to work. We’re global teams now. We’re finally catching on: The more diverse perspectives we have, the better we are.”
People often don’t have conversations about inclusivity, equity and diversity because they are afraid of what people are going to think—or afraid people will misread our good intentions and judge our words and call us sexist, racist, homophobic or some kind of hater we believe we’re not.
“But to opt out of these difficult conversations because they make you uncomfortable, is the definition of privilege,” she said. “You can’t do that. You’ve got to lean in.”
Courageous leaders are never silent about hard things, she added. “That’s what defines you as leaders. You excavate and bring to surface and shine light on stuff people are feeling but not talking about.”
Characteristics of brave leaders
Brave leaders, Brown said, are willing to engage in four behaviors:
- Rumbling with vulnerability. “We were taught to believe that vulnerability is weakness then also taught to be brave,” Brown said. But there is no courage without vulnerability, which involves uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.
- Living into values. Operationalize your values into two or three behaviors that are real, she recommended. One of these should be: “Talk to people, not about people.”
- Braving trust. “Clear is kind; unclear is unkind,” Brown advised. “You have to look people in the eye and be brave.”
- Learning to rise. When hard things happen, Brown said, people often make up stories to excuse them. Learning to check out the story you’re telling yourself can help you get back up again faster.
“We’ve got to dare greatly,” Brown concluded. “We have to show up and be seen. These are hard times. Don’t play small. Don’t do that for you. Don’t do it for the rest of us who more than you probably know need you and your voice.”