A morning of brave leadership and courageous cultures with Brené Brown

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After years of reading Brené’s work and watching her speak I knew that she would not disappoint at this mornings Business Chicks breakfast in Sydney. Even more exciting though was having the opportunity to hear about her latest research into Brave Leaders and Courageous Cultures.

Working thousands of hours with CEOs her research highlights still, that underneath all the things we expect from leaders not one of them can be done well without a level of vulnerability (uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure). Ethical decision-making for example, absolutely requires vulnerability. Having to speak up for what is right, when the mob want to proceed with another path is itself not an easy thing to do.

And as Brené pointed out, we still expect amazing technical leaders to be brilliant leaders of people. “It’s like asking me to be the pilot on a commercial plane, because I have thousands of frequent flyer miles”. We see how nonsensical this is, however this is exactly what we see time and again in organisations.

Whilst many of us have read every HBR magazine on leadership, and know loads about it, BEING a leader is a totally different ball game. Brené highlighted that three things leaders MUST have is, firstly, a complete awareness about their emotional state 100% of the time. That is, as they move through situations they are aware of their emotions and feelings at each stage. Secondly, they understand the emotional state of their people around them, also 100% of the time. And thirdly, they must do discomfort. This is a not negotiable and I know as a business owner the quote on my pin board is from Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM stating, “Growth and comfort do not co-exist”. Choosing courage over what is easy or comfortable is essential to leadership.

The four biggest issues for leadership was topped by the big one – trust. From her research Brené has learned that trust is built by the collection of ‘small moments’.  Not grand gestures. Equally, betrayal occurs in those small moments too. Two ways that leaders can build trust in their people, is to firstly, ask your people for help. This changes how they feel about a leader as it shows that you trust in them to do their job. The second is going to funerals or making an appearance in some way during those difficult times. Yep, that’s right. They are personal actions that show you see the person and are there for them. The small moments matter.

The behaviours that make up trust according to Brené research are outlined using her acronym BRAVING:

  • Boundaries

  • Reliability

  • Accountability

  • Vault (confidentiality – don’t share stories that aren’t yours to share)

  • Integrity (choosing courage over what is easy or comfortable) 

  • Non-judgment and 

  • Generosity.


The other three issues in leadership were Courage, Truth and Anxiety. The shame trigger for women in particular is perfectionism and wanting to be liked. If you are to be a leader, there is no option but to be okay with disappointing people. Don’t know about you, but boy I struggle with that one! There will always be times where we need to make decisions that not everyone likes. The key though is that we speak our truth.

Finally, Brené talked about anxiety as the most contagious affect we experience that is a function of groups. The antidote to anxiety is CALM and CADENCE and she described it as the “superpower for leaders”. This learned leadership skill is what creates PRESENCE. Before responding to an anxious employee, breathe and respond slowly. Ask yourself: “Do I have enough data to freak out?” and then ask, “If I freak out, will that help?”

So ask yourself as a leader: “What are the behaviours that will make you braver at work?” Who is your coach, mentor or network that you can trust with your tough stuff so you don’t use vulnerability irresponsibly on your team? (Remember, vulnerability minus boundaries equals recklessness. Expecting your people to hold a space for you to deal with your emotional problems at work is not appropriate for leaders – that’s the job of a coach, therapist, mentor or network. That’s your vault).

Lastly, change can happen by starting with small groups. It doesn’t have to start at the top. What change can you spark through a common language, story and purpose that runs through your organisation? The system is broken and command and control leadership does not work in today’s rapidly changing world. Whilst some leaders may tap into the emotional resonance of fear in people, “fear has a short shelf life as people get tired of being afraid”.

How will you show up bravely in your leadership today?