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Brené Brown on Courage, Grounded Confidence and How Her New Book Has Changed Her Approach to Leading and Work

Portrait of Brené Brown, smiling, in front of an abstract painting

Even for Brené Brown, renowned author, researcher and expert on being brave, leading doesn’t come easy. “Being a founder and CEO is one of the most challenging roles in my life when it comes to showing up as my best self, leaning into tough conversations and making hard calls—all in the service of others,” says Brown, who heads Brené Brown Education and Research Group as well as holds an endowed chair at the University of Houston. “Seriously, it’s up there with parenting and partnering.”

With her new book that’s out this month, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, Brown provides actionable strategies for the workplace, based on seven years of studying top leaders and teams around the world. She’ll be speaking at the TX Conference for Women (next month!) In the meantime, she took time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions.

Q: What led you to focus on and write a book about courage at work?

A: Our mission at Brené Brown Education and Research Group is to make the world a braver place by sharing research-based ideas in the most relevant, accessible and impactful way possible. Several years ago, I realized that we can’t make the world braver if we don’t change the way we work. We spend over half of our lives at work. When we spend every day in organizations where shame is used as a management tool, or where leaders don’t value the whole person, it takes a toll on us and often makes every aspect of our lives miserable. Dehumanized work chips away at our self-worth, and it limits our ability and willingness to make bold contributions—to use our voice and our talent to address the many significant problems we face today.

Q: What do you wish more women knew about courage at work?

A: This is maybe one of the two biggest revelations from the new research for all of us across gender: Fear is not the greatest barrier to daring leadership. The biggest barrier to daring leadership is our armor—how we self-protect when we’re in fear, uncertainty and discomfort. Brave leadership is about the capacity to rumble with vulnerability, stay curious, keep showing up and being less concerned with “being right” and more concerned with “doing it right.” We all use different types of armor—perfectionism, being the knower, people-pleasing. The bravest leaders we’ve interviewed are very aware of their go-to armor, and they work hard to stay open and engaged.

Q: Can people learn to be daring leaders?

A: YES! This is the other core finding from this latest study: Courage is a collection of four skill sets that are 100 percent teachable, observable and measurable. The foundational skill set of courage-building is “rumbling with vulnerability.” And, when I say foundational—this is over half the book! Once we have built these rumbling skills, we can move on to the other three skill sets: “Living into Our Values,” “Braving Trust” and “Learning to Rise.” But we start by identifying our armor and building the skills needed to stay in tough conversations without tapping out, pleasing, perfecting or proving. Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability.

Q: How has writing this book changed how you lead or approach work?

A: It’s changed everything from the process I use to set up my team for success, to how we show up with each other during hard conversations. I share this formula in the book:

Grounded Confidence =  Rumble Skills + Curiosity + Practice 

I wanted to write a playbook for people who want to trade in the suffocating armor for grounded confidence. This brand of confidence is not blustery arrogance or posturing or built on bullshit; it’s real, solid and built on self-awareness and practice. The courage superpower of daring leaders is staying curious when we feel uncertain and overwhelmed. The high levels of vulnerability that leaders experience never become comfortable, but the benefit of continually practicing these behaviors is that, when vulnerability is washing over us, we can hear grounded confidence whisper in our ear, “This is hard and awkward and uncomfortable. You may not know how it’s going to turn out, but you are strong and you have practiced what it takes to create and hold the space for this. LEAD ON.”

Q: What is one takeaway from Dare to Lead that’s shaped how you lead and may benefit other leaders?

A: When we’re in tough rumbles with people, we can’t take responsibility for their emotions. They’re allowed to be angry or sad or surprised or elated. But if their behaviors are not okay, we set the boundaries (what’s okay and what’s not okay). For example, we could say:

  • This is a tough conversation. Being angry is okay. Yelling is not okay.
  • I know we’re tired and stressed. This has been a long meeting. Being frustrated is okay. Interrupting people and rolling your eyes is not okay.
  • I appreciate the passion around these different opinions and ideas. The emotion is okay. Passive-aggressive comments and put-downs are not okay.

It’s really easy to take responsibility for the emotions that others experience during tough conversations. Sometimes our fear of hurting someone’s feelings or being on the receiving end of their anger even keeps us from raising serious concerns or giving critically important feedback. Daring leaders lean into these conversations. We can be clear, kind and respectful at the same time. We can have honest tough conversations and practice empathy without adding other people’s emotions to our load:

  • I know this is disappointing. What does support from me look like?
  • This is not the news that we were both expecting from the project team, but I wanted you to know as soon as possible. It’s a lot to process. I will sit here with you and talk through it some more or give you space. What’s helpful right now?

Brené Brown was a keynote speaker at the 2018 TX Conference for Women.

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