Brene Brown's Take on Leading Courageously

By Jamie McDaniel, Canadian Management Centre

leading courageously article

One of the most influential voices on leadership, courage and vulnerability in our current era is academic-researcher-turned-business-world-visionary Brene Brown.  You can read all about how to take off the armour and become the brave and wholehearted leader your team really needs right now in her book Dare to Lead. But if you’re a bit short on time, here’s a quick Q&A to bring you up to speed fast—even before your next team meeting or one-on-one.

Q: What does Brene mean when she talks about armoured leadership? 
Armoured leaders subscribe to the belief that avoiding vulnerability and other difficult emotions at work is key to staying productive, effective and efficient. Ideally, this applies all the way up the ranks, from individual contributor to top executive: no vulnerability, no messy human feelings, no problem. 

Vulnerability is the state we experience when we face risk and uncertainty, when we cannot control the outcome. Vulnerability can’t be engineered out of life—but we can and do try to protect ourselves from it by being stoical, cynical and critical, by blaming others, expecting the worst, exhausting ourselves in search of perfectionism, etc.  

Brown details 16 different self-protection strategies from her research: a veritable “Vulnerability Armoury” that guards against the painful emotions of the human experience (and inadvertently dulls the joyful ones as well). 

Q: Why would we ever want to remove the armour?
“Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” 
                                                                                                                                                                                     -Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, p. 67

Armoured leadership is the kind of leadership that, especially in turbulent times, prioritizes control and compliance, hoards information, shuts down dialogue, and refuses to admit uncertainty or anxiety. This makes it hard or impossible for anyone else to acknowledge the difficult realities on everyone’s mind. 

In normal times, armoured leadership undermines engagement and innovation by instilling in employees a fear of criticism or failure—essentially, a fear of being vulnerable themselves.

In difficult times, when emotions run high, armoured leaders not only fail to enable their team to perform under pressure, they actually make it more likely that individuals reach their breaking points, disengage or burn out, sometimes taking critical processes or projects down in flames along with them. 

Q: What would unarmoured leadership even look like? 
The rookie mistake here is to think that “removing the armour” means you should unload your personal baggage in front of employees or, even worse, admit that you really don’t know what you’re doing. That’s not it. 

You don’t need to overshare or seek sympathy from your teams to acknowledge that times are tough, that we’re all dealing with a lot, and that the future is uncertain and even frightening. Bringing these facts into the open helps create psychological safety, gives everyone space to admit their own anxiety, and sends the message that human emotions are normal and not cause for shame. 

As an unarmoured leader, you can also admit that you don’t have all the answers but commit to sharing what you can, as soon as you can. Honesty and transparency are attributes of vulnerability that will be particularly welcomed by your team.

Your next move should be some version of the question “How can I, as a leader, support you in this moment so that you both can get the job done and be okay?” If you’ve created a safe forum for that discussion, your team will give you answers you need to be a truly effective leader in turbulent times.

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