What does brave leadership look like? Lately it’s been elusive, even — maybe especially — at our highest government levels. That’s something both sides of the aisle probably agree on.
But researcher Brené Brown — a rock star among TED Talk devotees whose fans include Oprah — has been hard at work trying to answer that question, and the result is “Dare to Lead,” a “practical playbook” based on research with 150 global C-suite executives. She started by asking what people should do differently to lead during our modern times, when “we’re faced with seemingly intractable challenges and an insatiable demand for innovation.”
Everything is changing, so how does anyone lead? Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
Some of her takeaways seem entirely at odds with our present moment. Truly daring leaders, she explains, are prepared to be vulnerable and listen without interrupting. They have empathy, connecting to emotions that underpin an experience, not just to the experience itself. They have self-awareness and self-love, because who we are is how we lead. It’s easy to see how Brown’s research easily translates to parenthood. And marriages. And government hearings.
Imagine what the past month of news would have looked like if leaders had acted from that place. A governing body filled with empathic listeners who are embraced for recognizing when they “can’t fully serve the people [they] lead” would be revolutionary.
Brown uses her signature style of providing specific, immediate ways to “live authentically,” presenting her research outcomes alongside personal stories of how she herself falls short of living up to her research — but by God she keeps trying. When recounting a “rumble” meeting with her staff about her unrealistic deadlines, Brown recalls her CFO commenting that one of Brown’s go-to replies was, “It must be nice not to have to worry about the little things that make a big difference.” Ouch. This is the Brené Brown special sauce that makes her work both scholarly and relatable.
She applies her theories about the importance of vulnerability to being a parent, spouse and friend (especially with someone from the other side of the political spectrum). But her primary focus on the business world comes at a crucial time: We spend a large portion of our lives at work, and former surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy has prescribed a healthier workplace as a potential antidote for what he calls a loneliness “epidemic.”
Brown has a history of being prescient. In her 2012 TED Talk she said, “The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: Me, too.” She finished writing “Dare to Lead” long before the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and yet: “It’s as if we’d rather have a bad solution that leads to action than stay in the uncertainty of problem identification.” Empathy in leadership requires taking someone else’s perspective and understanding another person’s feelings, even when that person is directly challenging you (or challenging to you).
Instead of forcefully managing interpersonal relationships at work, she argues for vulnerability — having tough, truthful conversations without penalization. A wholehearted leader, Brown writes, manages by leading from the heart and isn’t threatened by showing her own imperfections.
Brown’s research translates to many fields because it’s about having successful interpersonal — and intrapersonal — relationships. Knowing oneself, having and enforcing boundaries, and recognizing limitations are leadership requirements but also requirements for having fulfilling relationships in general. To paraphrase Brown, we’re all just people.
Expect to take notes in the margins of “Dare to Lead.” It’s an absorbingly actionable handbook on creating a space for better work and more fulfilled people. If readers can muster the courage to follow the research, it could create better cultures in our organizations — government included.
Mary Beth Albright is the host and editor of Food Video at The Washington Post.
By Brené Brown
Random House. 320 pp. $28.