Courage at work. Lessons from Brene Brown

courage leadership Sep 01, 2021

It’s Wednesday at Workhuman 2019 in Nashville and people are networking, looking at product demos, having their professional headshots taken, and enjoying themselves during an afternoon break.

In spite of the activity, the crowd slowly starts to get in line in front of the ballroom. This is where Brené Brown is going to speak in an hour. As the time approaches 3:00, the crowd grows to the point there is no empty space outside the ballroom. You can feel the anticipation in the air.

When the doors open, people run to get coveted seats. Once the crowd settles in, the excitement and noise starts to increase. It reminds me of waiting for a fabulous band to emerge back when I was a teenager. As Brené enters, the crowd roars. People are excited, inspired, and ready to hear her wisdom.

Brené did not disappoint. Her talk was inspiring, funny, and full of insights we can take back to the workplace. Here are a few pieces of wisdom she shared:

Daring leadership. As part of her research, Brené asked hundreds of leaders which skills would be most important for leaders of the future. The one answer that emerged from the data was courage. What do courageous and brave leaders look like? Based on her research, this is what brave leaders do each and every day:

  • Have difficult conversations:  Courageous leaders have the challenging, sometimes emotional conversations, even when they don’t want to.
  • Embrace fears and feelings: Courageous leaders understand they need to spend time attending to the fears and feelings of their employees or spend a significant amount of time dealing with the impact of these feelings and fears. These leaders understand that they need to embrace what is driving the fears of their employees.
  • Show people how to re-set: Courageous leaders encourage people to make mistakes, reset, and bounce back. In fact, these leaders would rather hire someone who is not perfect but has the ability to bounce back and learn from mistakes.
  • Focus on the root cause: Courageous leaders focus on problem-solving and getting to the root cause of issues. Although it’s easy to find a quick fix, a courageous leader stays in the problem to determine the cause. Once the cause is found, they go into problem-solving mode.
  • Have the conversations around diversity and inclusion: Courageous leaders are never quiet about discussing the hard topics around diversity and inclusion. To not want to have these difficult conversations is the definition of privilege. Brave leaders choose courage over comfort. It is not the job of the people targeted by racism to invite people to the conversation. It is the role of the leader to start the conversation.
  • Do not shame or blame. Courageous leaders do not shame and blame others. They understand that when you humiliate someone, that person will quickly become disengaged. Shaming and blaming come from a place of control, not a place of vulnerability.

Brené’s research revealed 4 key skills required to be a courageous leader, and the good news is each of these skills can be learned.

Skill #1: Rumbling with vulnerability: Courageous leaders embrace their vulnerability, even when it’s uncomfortable. Many of us were raised to believe that vulnerability is a weakness and at the same time, that we needed to be brave. The reality is you cannot have courage and bravery without vulnerability. Many leaders are afraid to let the “gooey” center of emotions be on display at work. The challenge is this “gooey” center (as Brené calls it) is the same place where love, belonging, and joy originate.

Data tells us that belonging is one of the key facets that drives engagement, productivity, and retention in an organization. Belonging is about employees bringing their whole selves to work and speaking their truth. A culture of belonging is one where it’s safe to experiment when innovating. It is only through expressing vulnerability that a culture of belonging emerges.

Skill #2: Living your values: When organizations state their core values but do not operationalize these values, all that is left is “bullshit,” says Brené. People will make up what the values mean and then use the values to justify behavior. Courageous leaders operationalize values into specific behaviors.

Skill #3: Braving trust: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind,” says Brené. Courageous leaders need to be clear with their teams on what is working and what is not. Employees need to understand where they stand on projects, development, and growth. To give this clarity to employees is both kind and difficult. It requires challenging and honest conversations. Leaders need to learn they can be tough and tender; fierce and kind; and drive hard change while also recognizing people. It takes bravery, and it takes practice.

Skill #4: Learning to rise: A courageous leaders recognize when their head starts to make up stories at work. They realize these stories are based on assumptions and fear. Courageous leaders understand that the stories they make up can create challenging work situations. These leaders use self-reflection to recognize that the stories are just that, stories. They can then start look at facts and lead from knowledge versus fear and incorrect stories.

Courageous leaders cultivate a culture in which brave work, tough conversations, and whole hearts are the norm. Courageous leaders understand that “heart matters” at work.

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