Daring Greatly by Brené Brown – how to embrace vulnerability as a leader – leadership book review

Possibly the greatest challenge of a fresh leader is this: I need more information and I am not sure how to approach things. Should I ask for help? Is that going to be perceived as weakness by my colleagues? Will they lose their trust in my leadership capabilities? Are my teammates also afraid to tell me something I should now?

The mentality that ‘the boss must have all the answers in order to always be in control ‘ is outdated and toxic. It impacts the co-workers in a negative way, it instills fear inside the team members which in turn will lead to the death of innovation. That is why, in order to avoid the risk aversion mentality to take over the team, a leader must set a good example by developing shame resilience.

After more than a decade of studying the topic, Brené Brown presents in this groundbreaking book her take on vulnerability and how understanding it better will help us live a more fulfilled life and increase our contributions to our family, school, job or other communities we are part of. It is especially helpful for leaders who are starting out their journey and want to do a great job while consolidating their position.

To start of, let’s debunk some ‘vulnerability myths’ presented in the book:

I. Vulnerability myths

1. Being vulnerable = being weak

  • When you are vulnerable you are totally emotionally exposed. But it takes courage rather than fear in order to face uncertainty and assume risks. Even though we appreciate when other people open up and they show us who they really are, we are still afraid to do the same. Love is also a form of vulnerability – you risk a lot and you expose yourself – but you move forward anyway because you want love in your life. Vulnerability is one of the greatest challenges life throws at us and one must have great courage in order to embrace it.

2. Being vulnerable means renouncing your intimacy

  • Embracing vulnerability does not mean you should be vulnerable with anyone or pose as a victim. Only a few people that have earned your trust deserve to be included in this small circle of individuals that can help with this issues.

3. The most important thing is to handle things on your own

  • Serious leadership studies have shown that the ability to ask for help is essential while working in a company, and that vulnerability and courage are contagious. The way in which leaders initiate and sustain change can be described by the ‘growing snowball’ metaphor: when the leader is not afraid to show his vulnerability with his subordinates, this act is perceived as a show of courage and it inspires others to do the same. It will create a more open environment thus increasing creativity, innovation and the willingness to take the initiative.

II. How to handle insecurity as a newly appointed leader

We all went through that: the moment when you are appointed the leader of your first team at work. You may have lead other groups before, in school or other organizations, but the new job position comes with its own challenges. This is usually a moment of uncertainty, when we see a lot of things we want to improve – from managing the conflicts inside a team to organizing the work process and speaking with clients – but we do not know the right way to approach things.

Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. When you identify a reason for discomfort, you discovered a situation where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.

Seth Godin – Tribes
Being promoted into a leadership position is the first of many achievements to come

First of, there are some very good news: some people in charge of the company you work for saw enough reasons to appoint you as the leader of the team. That usually means that your values are in accordance with the ones the company has, you have the right mindset, you have a pleasing attitude and you also have the potential to grow yourself and the company. You will get better and better with experience and right now you are in a position that will allow you to learn a lot of things and grow as a person like never before. You are no longer only in charge of yourself, your actions will impact and influence a lot of people, you have to become a great example for your team and that will improve you not just as a leader at your job, but also as a person outside the work hours.

Here are some tips that may help during the transition period:

  1. Clarify your attributions: you need to know exactly what it is asked from you, what you need to accomplish and what are the deadlines.
  2. Keep in touch with your mentor: your direct boss can help you with advice from his experience. Do not be afraid to ask him for help when you encounter more delicate situations that require further assistance. If you do not work in the same office, it would be a good idea to have some regular check-ins in order for you to learn as much as possible;
  3. Do not be afraid to ask your team questions in order to get more information. Remember, you are not necessarily in charge because you are the most technical team member, but more because the way you think about and approach issues. Listen carefully to what your teammates propose and take the decision you find best.
  4. Listen to the needs of your team: now that you are a leader, you must also think about ways in which you can help you teammates grow. Do not be overwhelmed by the nuances of each individual behavior (bossy, unmotivated, angry all the time) and just think about the most efficient ways in which they can work together as a team and what would help each team member.

III. Help your team to process shame related issues

In order to be vulnerable you have to develop shame resilience. For eg. it takes courage in order to give some feedback to your boss when you know he needs it. It takes courage to propose new ideas regarding organizing or solving some issue. Shame has no benefits when it comes to team synergy.

The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager must needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure that shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward

Peter Sheahan – author, speaker, CEO

In order to increase the creativity, innovation and reasonable risk taking initiative inside the team, a good leader must develop the capability of their co-workers to have open attitudes regarding vulnerability.

Shame resilience is the ability to practice authenticity – to remain who you really are – when you are confronted by the emotion of shame, thus transforming it to empathy. If you can go through this experience without sacrificing your values, you can gain more courage and you can develop a deeper bond with the people you are managing.

Practice critical vigilance: can you discern the ideas and expectations that put the shame mechanism into motion? Are they realistic? Can they be accomplished? Do they express what you want or what others want from you? Being mindful about the thoughts that lead to shame will help you identify issues and fix them before they become bigger problems.

“A leader is anyone who thinks it is his responsibility to discover those people or processes who have the potential of evolution.”

Brené Brown

The biggest obstacle that stands in the way of creativity and innovation is the fear that coming with new ideas will give people a motive to make fun of you. What we usually forgot is that innovative ideas usually seem crazy at first. Leaders must give up the old idea that an organization is similar to an industrial machine, because in reality human networks are very different from mechanical parts. They have feelings, goals, motivations, biographies and emotions that need to be addressed in order to grow the organization. And the most emotionally dangerous enemy is shame – a hidden enemy, that works much like termites: you can not really see it at the surface, but it wreaks havoc on the inside until it is too late to do anything.

Here are the signs a leader can look for to check if shame has infiltrated inside a group of people:

  • intimidation from bosses;
  • insults being thrown on a continuous basis;
  • gossips;
  • harassment;
  • bullying;

Bullying is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute as ‘repeated inappropriate treatment, verbal abuse, acts of sabotage which prevents the completion of a task, intimidation, insults or humiliations’. Also, WBI reported that around 54 millions of americans (which makes up for roughly 37% of the population) were bullied at work. What is even more alarming is that in 52.5% of the cases, the management didn’t take any measures in order to limit this behavior.

Gossips and the guilt mentality are indicators of a bad environment for creativity

Any layer of management can also be guilty of some kind of bullying or shame inducing behavior, and in those cases measures should be taken quickly and without shame. A good leader should be on a lookout for the actions of a manager who (unintentionally) takes bad measures like:

  • public shaming (badly mistaken for a source of motivation);
  • making public lists of both good and bad performances (this will demotivate a lot of people);
  • creating competitions or reward systems that may lead to the depreciation of employees;
  • use mass-media to talk about individual employee performances (very dangerous and possible the baddest of them all: even omitting someone can have serious consequences on morale and self-esteem. Bill Gates also talks about this in this post);

Leadership and parenting are similar in the following way: it is more important who you are and how you act than what you know. We need to lead by the power of example and it is very importnat to make the people around you feel they are a poart of the group (colleagues part of the team, kinds part of the family, etc). Knowing bullying is great, but noticing it and doing something about it is more importnat.

Here is a list of what leaders can do in order to reduce shame and create a pleasant work environment:

Start taking these actions to help creativity and innovation inside the team
  • Be aware of the practice of guilt. If your teammates are always looking for someone to be guilty of something that went wrong, the environment is predisposed to be overtaken by the shame mentality.
  • Encourage open conversations: a great strategy to develop shame resilience is to treat problems that could appear as something normal. Everyone makes mistakes from time to time, we just have to acknowledge them, fix them, and then learn from the experience so that we do better in the future.

IV. How to give feedback

Everyone knows we need feedback in order to progress, but from the research done by the author the conclusion is that in general people tend to avoid difficult conversations and there is also a lack of knowledge regarding how to give and receive the opinions of others in a constructive way that will lead us to personal progress.

Feedback flourishes in the organizations where open discussions are encouraged and the discomfort made by the difficult conversations is treated as something normal

The successful leaders master the art of giving feedback, which flourishes in the organizations where open discussions are encouraged and the discomfort made by the difficult conversations is treated as something normal. The mentality of a leader regarding feedback should be something like: ‘We believe that personal development and learning provokes a certain discomfort – that also happens in our organization and you will probably feel it, but please know that we expect this to happen and you can count on us. We just want you to be open and accept the challenge‘.

In this section Brené Brown describes her experience with receiving feedback from an experienced teacher about a paper she submitted for review. Upon seeing her, the teacher walked from the chair near the teachers table and sat right next to her. She began by saying how much she liked the way the paper is written, how the research was made and how dedicated she was, and then she said that the scientific references were not done right and it would not be good if a very good paper like this would be rejected just for this issue. She also asked: “do you need some help with following the PA criteria? It is pretty complicated, it took me years to get it right.” – an excellent example of normalization.

In order to give a successful feedback, always keep in mind the following:

Position during feedback

In the “Dune” saga by Frank Herbert, the emperor Paul made anyone who came to see him feel insignificant by making that person walk a log distance, open huge 3 meters doors in order to arrive in the throne room where they would have to look up to see the shiny ruler. We do not want that to happen while giving feedback:

  • do not let any big objects between you and the person who receives feedback;
  • do not appear too imposing and adopt a friendly tone;
  • sit as close as you can to the other person, so that you both perceive the problems standing in front of you and not between you.

Start by identifying the strong qualities of the other person

  • Not acknowledging the qualities of an individual is just as bad as not addressing the issues. Usually, if you analyze any limitations of a person you discover their greatest capabilities. For eg.: someone may be seen as obsessed by control and planning, but that person probably deserves to be appreciated for their trust and responsibility.
  • This is not about seeing the glass part full. After specifying the qualities, it is a good idea to see how those would help in order to solve current issues or progress forward;

Be clear about their possibilities of advancement

  • In order for the feedback to be correctly understood and taken to heart, a good leader would present how solving the presented issues will help the other person evolve and how changing some things about the way they approach things will benefit them in the future.

V. Conclusion

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown is not just a leadership book, but the result of many years of studying vulnerability and what makes people happy in the long term. Recently she authored a new book – that is more oriented on leadership inside a corporation – called Dare to Lead, which I also intend to read soon.

Other chapters in the book are related to topics like parenting, shame, our emotional armors, the mentality of ‘always not enough’, and vulnerability is studied intensely since it is in the center of it all. I recommend this book for leaders and their colleagues alike, because it presents ways of becoming more authentic and more in control of our lives.

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