Courageous leadership

As you may know, one of the most popular TED talks of all time is by Brené Brown about vulnerability.

Her latest book, Dare to Lead, was published in 2018 and builds on much of her research on vulnerability – she expands on this theme and describes what it looks like in a leadership context. I found it packed with rich content and lots of checklists, (although you’ll need to create your own checklist for all the checklists :-)), so it’s worth getting if you want to dig a little deeper. Meanwhile, it inspired the ideas in this article which I hope you find useful.

“The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing; it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”
Brené Brown

Brené suggests that courage is a collection of four skillsets:

  • Rumbling with vulnerability
  • Living into our values
  • Braving trust
  • Learning to rise

The sub-title of her book sums it up for me: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts.

Rumbling with vulnerability

Courage is about being self-aware and then managing our fears. We are all afraid of something. It’s how we respond to fear that is the key.  Have you ever done anything courageous without also having a feeling of vulnerability?

You, as an individual, can choose to show your vulnerability or hide it behind your masks and armour. It’s also the same with organisational culture.

Organisational culture is determined by the leaders, whether that’s of the overall company or within a department. It’s therefore essential that leaders care about their people as human beings, and to make the time and effort to connect with them, so that each person can be courageous.

Is your workplace one that makes it safe for people to show up as their true selves, to bring ALL of themselves to work, warts and all?  If yes, what does this enable? If no, what is this preventing?

Brené’s research identified one main barrier, which is that many leaders avoid tough conversations. More than half of those interviewed put this down to the cultural norm of “being nice and polite”. This results in people saying “yes” when they mean “no”, avoiding responsibility, and passive/aggressive behaviour – in large corporations this can seem the easier option, as it can be accepted and adopted as an institutional norm.

As a leader, you need to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to role model it for your people, and to be more courageous yourself. This is irrespective of how others around you are behaving.

6 myths of vulnerability

Have you ever found yourself thinking any of these thoughts?

  • “Vulnerability is weakness”
  • “I don’t do vulnerability”
  • “I can go it alone”
  • “You can engineer the uncertainty and discomfort out of vulnerability”
  • “Trust comes before vulnerability”
  • “Vulnerability is disclosure”

If any of those statements resonated with you, then you’re completely normal! But my advice is to adopt the mindset from the title of a book I read many years ago: Feel the Fear and do it Anyway. Over the years I’ve been coaching leaders, this mantra has often helped them acknowledge the vulnerability they feel but go ahead and do the right thing anyway. As a result, it’s made them stronger, increased their self-esteem, and helped them grow.

You can engineer the uncertainty from some things, but not emotion or living true to your values.

Thar doesn’t mean I’m an advocate of blind trust… sometimes we need to know that it would be foolhardy to disclose everything we’re feeling. For example, if you’re a leader who is about to lead an organisation through transformation, it’s OK to tell people that you don’t yet have all the answers but you trust the plan will be created/iterated. However, it’s not OK to let them know you’re scared and have no idea what you’re doing!  They need to feel safe, and also engaged for the ride.

Benefits of showing vulnerability

When you admit your vulnerability to others, you’ll build deeper relationships and connections (which as human beings, is what we’re hard-wired to do). The chances are the other person will inwardly breathe a sigh of relief at your openness, and it will encourage them to do the same.  You can then talk to each other from a more open and connected place – and get to the heart of the matter more quickly.

When you ‘put the messy stuff on the table’, it means you can deal with the things that need to be dealt with, and this increases your chance of success.

The reason many companies fail is because they don’t dare to do that.

Living into our values

Have you ever worked for a company that had values different to your own? Or been in a relationship where your values were not aligned with theirs? If yes, it probably didn’t feel too good – even if you couldn’t articulate why.

Your values are a core part of you – they are what you hold as precious and important, and guide how you live your life. In work, if you are a leader, your values and personality will shape how you lead.

The first step is to know your values. If you’d like help to identify yours, please ask me to send you an exercise that will help you do that.

Make sure you are crystal clear on your core values and then consider how you want them to show up in your behaviours and the choices you make. The magic is having a small handful of values that you remain conscious of, because if you have too many, they become a blur.

Once you’ve identified your values, reflect on the extent to which you live them in all areas of your life.

Do you give your opinion, even when it’s different to others?
Do you lead with authenticity?
Do you speak the truth that needs to be told?
Do you prioritise the things that are important to you, e.g. protecting family or exercise time?

It may also help you to think of a time when you lived each of your values and “anchor” in your mind what this looked and felt like. Then, when you want to, you can recall these stories and gain confidence and belief in yourself.

“Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”
Brené Brown

Braving trust

If you trust that someone else’s intentions are positive, you can be vulnerable together. You can both listen and advocate, and you will sit alongside them to get the work done, rather than opposite them.

We all want to be seen as trustworthy. One of the skills of emotional intelligence is the ability to trust and be trusted. Not blind trust, obviously, but thoughtful trust.

In my experience, I trust people who are:

  • Reliable – I can rely on them to deliver on time and to the required quality
  • Knowledgeable – they know their stuff, and will be honest enough to say when they need to get more input from someone else
  • Confidential – when required
  • Integrity – they want to do the right thing, and have a win-win mindset when working with others
  • Relational – honest about their vulnerabilities and willing to grow.  They make time to think about their actions and the impact, and learn from it.

If you don’t feel you trust someone, be clear why, and then talk to them. Describe the behaviour and the impact, and make sure your have positive intention when speaking to them about it.

Learning to rise

Sometimes, life sucks.
Sometimes, life is unfair.
Sometimes, life doesn’t go your way.

Learning to rise is about getting up when we fall over in life, dusting ourselves down and moving on. When done right, we learn the lesson and become wiser (in a good way, not a cynical or scarred way).

The art is to take responsibility for what’s yours (both behaviour and mindset), and let others take responsibility for what’s theirs, and to keep moving forward.

When something happens, lean into your vulnerability and pain, be curious about your feelings and reactions.  This may help:

  • Firstly, breathe! On the mindfulness course I did, I was taught the following: first, take a deep breath in and out, slowly. Then breathe in through your nose to a count of 4; hold it to a count of 4; and then release to a count of 4, through your mouth. By slowing down your breathing and focusing on it it brings you to the present and calms your feelings down. Hopefully it will help you to see things a little more clearly and decide what you need next.
    By the way, it might also help if you wake in the night and can’t get back to sleep.
  • Secondly, analyse your feelings. Don’t try to be too articulate, just get it all out.  A journal can be useful for this.
  • Thirdly, try and make sense of the crisis, by unpeeling the layers. What’s really underneath it all? What are you feeling and why? What impact is this having on you and others? What’s real and what’s just your own made-up story?
  • Finally, breathe!

What’s your response?
What can you learn for the future?
Who can help you? Who cares about you?
How can you practice self-compassion?

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
Joseph Campbell

Further reading

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