We all want to be leaders. But what does it take to be a good one? Learn how to lead from a place of compassion and empathy with a book summary of Dare to Lead by Brene Brown.
Imagine that you’re giving a speech on stage. The arena is full of seats, but these seats are not for ordinary guests: some of the tickets have been bought by shame, some – by comparison and self-doubt, and some – by courage and empathy. Of course, these guests won’t react the same way to your speech: someone will applaud or nod compassionately, and someone will boo... But it’s your choice whose voice you’ll focus on.
“Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts” by Brené Brown is about leadership – but leadership with a human face. She doesn’t talk about productivity techniques for outstanding results; she talks about the psychology of relationships in a business environment. Brown discusses an unusual idea that a great leader has to be vulnerable, which challenges the typical image of a boss as a cold and distant person.
In our “Dare to Lead” summary, we’ll explain the main principles of daring leadership – which is, in Brown’s interpretation, leadership that requires exposure to emotions and courage to live them through.
Daring is saying “I know I will eventually fail, and I’m still all in.” I’ve never met a brave person who hasn’t known disappointment, failure, even heartbreak.
So what’s vulnerability? Brown explains it as “the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Vulnerable experiences are never easy, and to show up without “armor” - without self-protecting mechanisms of different kinds – is pretty scary.
This is why we usually avoid vulnerability by all means. It’s uncomfortable; besides, we’re full of prejudices against this feeling. Brown calls these prejudices the Six Myths of Vulnerability:
To feel means to be vulnerable. We cannot experience love, a sense of belonging, and joy if we close our hearts, and this means we cannot experience them without vulnerability.
Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.
If you’re a leader, you may find it hard to keep the balance between maintaining your authority and staying human. But there is a solution: just remember that clear is kind, and unclear is unkind: for example, telling only half-truth is unkind; talking behind people’s backs is unkind.
We’re often afraid of being honest because honesty can hurt. And when we’re in fear, we’ve got two options: resort to self-protection or call to courage. Unfortunately, very often we choose the first one. We assemble our armor. Typically, it happens in the following way:
What’s interesting is that it doesn’t take much time to move from the first to the last of these thoughts; we put all the armor on before we know it. But this self-protection technique will not lead us anywhere. Because, after all, leadership is about serving people.
This is why, says Brown, leaders must find the courage to be curious and look for real reasons why things happen, even if it means emotional discomfort. They also have to remember that the choice of words matters: not only do you have to name emotions, you need to name them correctly.
For example, when we use the word “disconnected” instead of “lonely”, we make a mistake – and this mistake is not just contextual. Using the word “sterile” means we are scared to reach feelings at a deeper level; it means we shy away from true problems. It also means we are not moving towards fixing it.
The problem is that when we imprison the heart, we kill courage. In the same way that we depend on our physical heart to pump life-giving blood to every part of our body, we depend on our emotional heart to keep vulnerability coursing through the veins of courage.
Our heart is our most precious treasure, but we often forget about it. We believe that emotions make us less efficient, less productive. This way, we build cultures that reward armor.
Of course, “armor” is a metaphor. As we mentioned before, it represents behavior that is supposed to protect us from hostile environments, and sometimes from ourselves. However, this behavior often leads to frustration.
Brown talks about 16 cases of armored leadership, for each of them providing a counter-behavior. We’ll mention some of them:
1. Armored leadership: Driving perfectionism. Brown says that perfectionism has nothing to do with striving for excellence; it’s just a self-defense instrument. She calls it self-destructive and addictive – addictive because every time we experience failure, we think it’s because we aren’t perfect, and it just gets us in a vicious circle.
Daring leadership: Encouraging healthy striving. You can fight perfectionism simply by discussing it with your team. Try to understand where exactly you fall victim to perfectionism, and replace it with healthier tactics.
2. Armored leadership: Squandering opportunities for joy and recognition. How can we celebrate victories if we don’t know for sure it will work out in the long run? How can we recognize employees’ achievements if there is still so much work to do? That’s a pretty toxic approach.
Daring leadership: practicing gratitude and celebrating milestones. The attitude of gratitude lets you feel good for having something worth losing.
3. Armored leadership: Being a knower and being right. Brown points out that being right is heavy armor – it always means defensiveness. This is miserable for both a knower and for people around him, as it leads to conflicts.
Daring leadership: Being a learner. Leaders should work on curiosity and their ability to not only give the right answers but also to ask the right questions.
4. Armored leadership: criticism as self-protection. Besides blatant criticism, there are two other forms of it, more subtle ones – nostalgia and the invisible army. Nostalgia is saying things like “We’ve never done it this way”; the invisible army is using the pronoun “we” when talking about yourself (as if the person had a mouse in his pocket, right?).
Daring leadership: making contributions. Leaders should contribute more than criticize.
Every time we feel like putting our armor on, we should remind ourselves that the bravest people are brokenhearted – they let their hearts out of prison and got hurt.
Looking for shame in organizations is like inspecting a home for termites. If you walk through a house and actually spot termites, you have an acute problem that’s probably been going on for a while.
Shame is one of our primitive emotions; it’s universal, and it’s very painful. We don’t talk about shame. The very word sounds uncomfortable. However, if we don’t admit we’re experiencing shame, it will have more control over our lives.
According to Brown, one of the reasons we don’t talk about shame is, again, the wrong use of vocabulary. We often replace the word “shame” with “guilt”, “humiliation”, and “embarrassment” – even more, we use these words interchangeably. This is a mistake – they all have shades of meaning and describe different behaviors.
Shame is about doing something wrong and getting caught – for example, getting promoted, and then getting demoted after a six-month period because you don’t do your job well.
Unlike shame, guilt is helpful – it means you believe you can change. Humiliation is a feeling of shame when you think you don’t deserve it. And embarrassment is a type of shame that makes you feel you’re not alone because there is someone who’s already done that before.
Out of the above, shame is the most detrimental – it represents the feeling of disconnection, of being flawed and unworthy of love and belonging. It’s bad for us, and bad for building relationships at work.
In a business environment, shame is contained in the following behaviors: perfectionism, favoritism, gossiping, harassment, discrimination, etc.
Brown calls shame “a social wound” and says there is a social balm to cure it. That balm is empathy.
While shame makes us feel disconnected, empathy is a strong instrument of connection. It’s the ability to see someone’s pain; it’s about being with someone while they’re going through darkness.
Brown says empathy can be developed and mentions 5 empathy skills:
To lead effectively, we’re responsible for respecting and leveraging the different views and staying curious about how they can often conflict… while we may have different perspectives and may not share the same level of knowledge about every detail of the organization, we must have a shared reality of the current state of the organization.
Curiosity is tightly correlated with creativity and problem-solving, but instead of curiosity, we often prefer the "knower” approach. The knower is our ego, and it’s our ego that makes us demonstrate intelligence instead of addressing the issue. Unlike it, curiosity leads us to the solution.
Compare these two examples:
The knower: “I don’t want to talk about this because I don’t know how people will react.”
Curiosity: “I’m up for wherever this goes.”
It’s obvious that the person who takes the second option will have more chances to get to the heart of the problem.
If you are unsure how to approach an issue with curiosity, you can use one of the starters:
Our values should be so crystallized in our minds, so infallible, so precise and clear and unassailable, that they don’t feel like a choice—they are simply a definition of who we are in our lives.
The voices of others can make us forget who we are and what’s dearest to us – and what’s worse, we often don’t really know that at all. But values are like lighthouses that direct our lives; we should be more serious about them.
Brown says it’s not enough to just have values; we need to live into them. She says it’s a three-step process:
According to Brown, the biggest challenge we face when it comes to values is the necessity to give and get feedback. In this case, to stay aligned with your values requires a special attitude – readiness to listen, the ability to hold a person accountable without shaming or blaming, genuine gratitude for the input etc.
Asking for help is a power move. It’s a sign of strength to ask and a sign of strength to fight off judgment when other people raise their hands.
Without trust relationships fall apart; this is why trust is the glue that holds organizations together. We often struggle with trust though. And it happens simply because we don’t have the tools to build it.
Brown and her teams identified seven behaviors defining trust – “BRAVING”. This is a guide that explains how to talk to your colleagues in order to build trust:
Boundaries: you’re clear about what’s okay and what’s not.
Reliability: keep your promises, and don’t overpromise.
Accountability: if you make mistakes, admit it, apologize, and make amends.
Vault: you don’t share confidential information, and don’t let others share confidential information about someone else with you.
We believe that gossiping hotwires connection but that’s not true. Brown calls it “a counterfeit connection”: when you’re gossiping, you may feel as if you are getting closer with the person, but in fact, as soon as you walk out, he or she will immediately think – I cannot trust her, I need to be careful.
Integrity: you choose courage over comfort.
Living in the world where fun is considered a lifestyle, and whatever is easy and fast is seen as more attractive, we can find it very hard to resist temptations and say no to comfort.
Nonjudgment: you can always ask for something, and others can ask you. No one will be judged.
Nonjudgment is not easy, especially in the workplace. Afraid of being judged, we don’t ask for help. Not only do we make it more difficult for us to complete the task, but we also limit ourselves. Without help, we probably won’t be able to take on a new project; so refusing to get help, we refuse to let us improve.
Generosity: you interpret the words and behavior of others from the viewpoint of generosity.
We should also remember that trusting others is impossible if we don’t trust ourselves. You can work through BRAVING steps to develop self-trust too – it will be even easier because there will be no ambiguity of intentions.
Choosing to live and love with our whole hearts is an act of defiance. You’re going to confuse, piss off, and terrify lots of people—including yourself… You’ll also wonder how you can feel so brave and so afraid at the same time. At least that’s how I feel most of the time…brave, afraid, and very, very alive.
Humans are emotional beings. The problem is that we don’t know how to handle our emotions. Instead of trying to feel them through and get curious, we offload them onto other people. This doesn’t help, of course.
Brown mentions several offloading strategies we use that only make things more complicated:
To become a good leader, or just to make your relationships with others healthier, you’d have to stop using these strategies. Instead, you need to recognize the emotion. A good technique is practicing calm. Brown calls it one of the most underrated leadership superpowers – it creates perspective and helps manage emotional reactivity.
In a world full of cynical critics, we need to open our hearts, take off our armor, and let ourselves be vulnerable. Brown says that it’s nothing less than a revolution – because courage is rebellion, and changing the way we think and behave will take a lot of it. Bravery is impossible without fear, but it may bring fruits you’d never get otherwise.
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