Over the past year, I have written on many topics, but never on courage. I’m prompted to do so now by a Time Magazine article “America’s Reigning Expert on Feelings, Brené Brown Now Takes on Leadership,”1 which follows the recent publication of Brown’s fifth major book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.2 Fundamentally, the book is about the courage to lead.
The magazine quotes Brown saying, “Courage is a prerequisite for all leadership.” You cannot lead without courage. And, importantly, the essay continues, “[Courage] can be taught. It’s made up of four skills: being vulnerable is the most important, followed by sticking to values, trusting others and persistence. There can be no courage without vulnerability and no vulnerability without the risk of failure.” Brown says further, “The people who have the skills to get back up from a fall will engage in smarter risks and more courageous behaviors than people who don’t.”
Now, I have written on vulnerability3 which Brown’s defines as “The universal emotion we feel when times are risky and uncertain, or we are at the mercy of other people’s actions.” Or, said differently, “The willingness to be ‘all in’ even when you know it can mean failing and hurting.” She continues that thought writing “When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bullet proof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.”
So, from a very basic, yet fundamental point of view, leadership is all about having the courage to accept your vulnerability and show up even when you are not bullet proof, and not perfect. This is what President Teddy Roosevelt had in mind in a 1910 speech when he said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly … who best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”4
Some argue that courage is a personality trait, some people have it, and some don’t. Not so, argues Brown. As noted earlier, she insists that courage is a skill set, that you have courage when you have mastered the skills of:
- Vulnerability – can you stay with tough things when they get uncomfortable and awkward,
- Live into your values – are you very clear about what you value, and do you operationalize these values into your behavior,
- Braving trust – do you build trust with others and are you trustworthy, and
- Learning to rise – are you able to quickly get back up after you have been knocked down.
Let’s say a bit more about each of these four skills:
Vulnerability – First, being vulnerable does not mean you must disclose that you are vulnerable in the situation at hand. It does mean that you need to show up and to let people in. You need to understand whether you can manage the uncertainty and emotional exposure – shame, fear, anxiety, grief, disappointment, etc. – that the situation may bring. Can you stay in the hard conversations? Can you tell the truth? Can you give feedback when it’s hard? Can you ask for feedback when you know that the feedback will be hard for you to hear? Or, will you “armor up,” and not let people see the real you? Ask yourself these and other situationally appropriate questions to prepare you for your encounter. And, work to be more courageous every day.
Live into your values – Here, you must know what your values are. Unfortunately, you may never have asked yourself this question, either with regard to your personal values or your organization’s. Thus, asking may give you pause. However, if you are going to have courage you need to understand what you stand for. Brown’s consulting group provides some examples in “Organizing Your Values.”5 For example, if you have a value of always showing up you might “live this value” by working to exceed expectations, by being fully engaged, by taking initiative, by taking responsibility for your work, etc. By identifying your values and, for each, its associated behaviors, you make the values real, actionable and achievable. And, as a result, they can become practices.
Braving trust – Most likely, we think of ourselves as trusting others, yet when we try to make a list of those we trust, the list is not very long and is filled with conditional notes. We confide in a small carefully chosen set of others. To become more courageous, we need to increase our levels of trust. Here is a list of seven behaviors, derived from Brown’s research that will help us cultivate trust:
- Boundary setting – clarifying and respecting everyone’s boundaries is crucial to collaboration.
- Reliability – keep your word.
- Accountability – we all make mistakes; accept responsibility for yours.
- “Vault” (as in bank vault) closing – don’t break confidentiality.
- Integrity – know your values and never compromise them.
- Non-judgment – replace “judgment” with curiosity, ask those questions that you hesitate to ask.
- Generosity – leave lots of room in your interpretations and expectations.
Whenever you are in a difficult situation that requires communication and collaboration to resolve, one or more of these behaviors will likely help you get back on track.
Rising skills – Many leaders say it’s only possible for them to have courage because they now know how to get back up after they fail. Too often when we make a mistake or are “poked” in an area of vulnerability, we react in what we feel, in what we think, and in what we want to do. And, we take action. For example, we may channel our hurt into working hard in another area, into verbally dumping on someone not involved in the situation, into retreating into a personal space to nurse the hurt, or even stockpiling the hurt to “get even” at a later date, etc. Alternatively, we can learn to respond differently.
So, what are the skills you need to have in order to get back up? You begin by examining and understanding the story you are telling yourself about what happened. You might write it down in what Brown calls an SFD or “stormy first draft.” (Actually, she uses a different “s” word that you can probably figure out.) With this draft in hand, you work on understanding what really happened. It takes courage to walk into your story. However, when you do and you really own the story, you get to write the ending. And, when you don’t own your story of failure, setback and hurt, the story owns you.
These stories are always full of emotion and feelings. You need to name the feelings and that’s hard. Too often we shy away from our feelings preferring to offload them onto others as they are too painful. To be able to consider your feelings, you need to be calm and not anxious. Brown suggests that we learn “box,” or “tactical,” breathing5 and use this as a tool to calm our emotions enabling us to walk into our story and write a new ending that prepares us for the next time we step up as a leader. And, the more practice we have at examining the results of our being a courageous, vulnerable leader, the better we will get at leading courageously.
In the coming days, look for opportunities to be courageous, to walk into the arena. Step up and contribute in that meeting where you are knowledgeable but fearful given who else is in the room. Volunteer for that project that is at the edge of your comfort zone. Initiate a conversation with a senior leader you’ve not met. The list of opportunities is endless. And, when it doesn’t go as well as you’d like, take the time to understand the story and write a new ending as preparation for the next time.
And, do those courageous things that will make it a great week for you and your team.
. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
- “America’s Reigning Expert on Feelings, Brené Brown Now Takes on Leadership”, Time Magazine, November 12, 2018.
- Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., Random House, 2018.
- Jim Bruce, “Being Vulnerable,” MOR Leaders Program, Tuesday Reading, August 2018.
- Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic,” speech delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France, April, 1910.
- “Operationalizing Your Values,” Brené Brown LLC, October 2018.
Additional Readings and Notes:
- “Dare to Lead Summary,” Four Minute Books, October 2018.
- “Dare to Lead: Read-Along Workbook,” Brené Brown LLC, October 2018.
- Brené Brown, CBS This Morning Interview, October 10, 2018.
- Brené Brown, Daring Classrooms, South-By-Southwest Conference Keynote Presentation, March 2017.
- Tactical breathing (as explained by former Green Beret Mark Miller to Brené Brown):
- Inhale deeply through your nose, expanding your stomach for a count of four.
- Hold in that breath for a count of four.
- Slowly exhale all the air through your mouth, contracting your stomach, for a count of four.
- Hold the empty breath for a count of four.