Brené Brown is a phenomenon, an academic entrepreneur and cultural powerhouse. A social worker with a doctorate, a scholar and researcher, Brown’s “day job” is as a faculty member at the University of Houston. Her work and impact is much broader than the classroom and academia. In 2010 Brown gave a Ted talk on the power of vulnerability. It’s an tremendous presentation and one of the most popular Ted talks ever, viewed more than 36 million times. Brown in it talks about her desire to control vulnerability, her growing understanding of how shame – that debilitating feeling that comes with diminished self-worth – can keep us from discussing vulnerability and our feelings – and how self-acceptance can provide long-term health and a path to success and a positive working environment. The talk and subsequent research led to much professional success. Today she is one of the world’s best-read writers on leadership.
In the past decade Brown has published several best-selling books. She’s created a leadership company, given advice to many leading companies, and is a fixture in the popular media. Oprah is a fan. Brown has also put together a host of workbooks, assessments, planners and guides. When a colleague recommended her latest book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, and I saw stacks of them in airport bookstores, I decided to give it a try. I am glad that I did. Brown may not be the most radical strategist, and at times her research-informed suggestions may seem to have a bit of homily about them. Nevertheless, she is very focused and very good when it comes to issues of identity, values and behavior. She and her team have researched leadership across sectors, countries and situations. Brown knows what she is writing about. It is difficult to imagine reading her work, giving it consideration, and not coming away with some insight and understanding.
Making it all possible are Brown’s strong communication skills. She is a compelling speaker and writer. Her communication is driven by a sense of great integrity – and her honesty and courage comes across with clarity and urgency. She is up front about her strengths, her weaknesses, and her idiosyncrasies. She has ability to zero in on what she believes – and others may believe – is important. It’s impressive, particularly since the book tends to go light on numbers and harder data.
At the heart of Brown’s philosophy is research-informed awareness of the positive power of accepting vulnerability, the power of shame to control and limit us, and the importance of leading and living one’s life wholeheartedly. It is an expansion on that first Ted talk and follow up research. Brave leadership, she argues, is about listening, about difficult conversations, and caring. The book is peppered with examples of challenging discussions, events that she calls “rumbles.” Never easy but usually essential to deeper understanding, rumbles demand trust and build it, too. It is an interesting counter-argument to what we often see described as leadership in today’s media.
Truly “brave” leadership, Brown asserts, is wholehearted, acknowledging feelings and emotion, and open. It accepts failings and weaknesses. It is honest and true, connected to values. That does not mean, though, that it is weak. In contrast, Brown makes compelling arguments that it is courageous, that it calls for greater clarity, better defined expectations and boundaries. She expands on this, and provides dialogues illustrating how that kind of leadership can help teams achieve greater mutual understanding. Brown explains the value of true curiosity and demonstrates how it can help with confidence. She offers telling critiques of negative leadership and the damage that accompanies organizations where shame is a part of the office culture. Beware of workplaces that show signs of perfectionism, favoritism, comparisons, self-worth tied to productivity, harassment, discrimination, power over, bullying and blaming – and that rely on shame. Look for empathy and integrity, she stresses, and she explains how that can manifest itself at work.
Brown is particularly skilled at offering examples – personal and from professional colleagues – about how even the smallest interactions can run off the rails. She does this with humor and wisdom. Brown knows people and common human behaviors – healthy and harmful.
Reading Daring to Lead gave me a good understanding of Brown and insight into her popularity. At bottom, Brown is smart and very good at doing research with the potential for implementation and application. Even more, she knows how to explain all of it in an accessible manner. The leadership she espouses aligns well with value-driven leadership in the nonprofit and education spheres. Even more telling, she advocates for leadership that is about learning and growth. Brown isn’t that far away from the classroom after all.