Book review by Emily Thornton
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Brene Brown changes my life with every book she writes – if you don’t know who she is, I recommend you check out her Ted Talk on Vulnerability that has now more than 37 million views, as a starting point.
I first came across her through her Ted Talks, and then proceeded to devour her first three books – ‘I Thought It was Just Me, But It Isn’t’ had a particular impact on me, as I did, frequently, find myself thinking the title out loud, as I read. If there’s anything to take away from Brene’s work – it’s this: it is never, ever just you thinking or feeling what you’re feeling. I promise you, and more importantly, she, and her extensive research, promises you too.
To those who aren’t familiar with her, Brene‘s research has been around shame and vulnerability, about what disconnects us from each other and what connects us. Her work has developed from those first books I read, moving into ideas about whole-hearted living, about courage, about trying and failing and trying again, and in Braving the Wilderness about avoiding the polarising nature of today’s political polemic. Her latest book, Dare to Lead, takes what she’s learnt and develops it further, drawing on her decades of research, as well as interviews with 150 global C-level executives and a three-year instrument development study, and applies it to the concept of leadership in particular.
Working in leadership development, and being a big fan of Brene, I was therefore extremely interested to read the book and had it on pre-order for months. Suffice to say, I wasn’t disappointed – and the fact that I have already gifted a copy to one colleague, and lent my copy to another – shows how powerfully it affected me.
The book categorises leadership as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” This is very much in alignment with our thinking at AchieveForum about everyone having the opportunity to be a leader, and to display leadership qualities, regardless of title or position. Brene states her strong belief in the need for brave leaders and courageous cultures. She shows how to develop this with four skill-sets: Rumbling with Vulnerability, Living Into Our Values, Braving Trust and Learning to Rise.
Rumbling with Vulnerability
Her research has led her to believe that in order to truly serve the work and each other, we have to be vulnerable – we have to be willing to not have the answers and put aside that ‘work mask.’ Only when we fully show up, can we fulfil our potential. The toxicity of always having to be right, and of always having to ‘know’ can be pervasive in organisations. How much better to operate from an honest and vulnerable place, where we’re both generous and curious in our dealings with each other and our engagement with the work? The idea of a ‘rumble’ is in essence to show up with an open mind and heart, and be willing to do what’s best for the work, not necessarily our own egos. This can be particularly challenging for leaders who do have official authority and responsibility. To be vulnerable is no easy task, especially when we are tied into that traditional idea that a leader must have all the answers.
Living into your values
For me, the chapter on Living Into Our Values was particularly resonant. Brene suggests that we can distill our values down to two core ones, which we hold true, whether in work or out of it (as to her, there should be no difference). I mentioned this to my colleague, and she was keen enough to try out the exercise of choosing her values from a list with her daughters. Then we extended it to our whole team in the London office, sharing our values on a Slack channel and exploring through further discussions. Even just having an awareness of our own values has helped in understanding why we might struggle with certain situations that ask us to act contrary to those values. As a team, we’re starting to explore what that means for how we work together – and how we can make sure that our behaviours are aligned with our values, rather than inadvertently causing us to slip away from them. Authenticity is a huge part of this. To believe and trust ourselves and others, we have to know that we’re all being our true and full selves.
Speaking of trust, it’s often cited as the building block for high performing teams, and that’s certainly in line with our own research. ‘Braving Trust’ pushes this concept front and centre, not only in how to build trust through integrity, authenticity, and reliability, but reminds us that we need to also be able to trust ourselves. I was intrigued by the link between self-trust and trusting others that Brene explores here – essentially that we need to treat ourselves with the same care that we would give to others, and work on trusting ourselves in the same way.
Learning to Rise
Finally, ‘Learning to Rise’ is linked to the idea that we have to fall and rise again, essentially that we have to be willing to try and to fail, not just once, but again and again. I think there is a lot for us to learn here around the idea of failure. As much as companies talk about being innovative and taking risks and being okay to fail – how much do we see that in practice? We often hear from our clients that they are under pressure to be innovative, to take risks – but not ones that would have too great an impact. The message sometimes seems to be that of course, you can fail, just don’t fail too much, and certainly not when it counts. There are contradictory messages out there, and truly building a space where it’s safe to fail can sometimes feel unattainable. The belief that never getting anything wrong is the safest thing is often very difficult to unpick – despite the evidence showing us that it isn’t how we learn best, or actually, how we thrive as people and as organisations.
This skill-set also covers the emotional side of matters, how we need to be able to give space for our emotions, to acknowledge and to get curious about them – rather than the suppression and avoidance that can actually lead to the kind of destructive behaviours we’re trying to avoid. Look out for a forthcoming Leadership Roundtable podcast on the role of emotions in the workplace.
What’s interesting about Brene’s work is that despite her ability to condense complex ideas into simple and easy-to-understand definitions – and the book is certainly very readable – she continues to push back against the idea that any of this is easy, or that you can hit a target and be done. This is work that needs you to try and fail and try again, it’s work that is messy and complex, but of incredible value. This is not the case of reading one book, or attending one program, and being certified as a Good Leader. At AchieveForum, we often work with clients over a number of years and the times when we see the most value in their organisation is when the focus is on sustainment and integration of the learning into the workplace. Sometimes sticking with an initiative is truly the best thing you can do, because people need to try to apply things, they need to fail, and they need to be allowed to continually learn.
Ultimately, Brene takes what I hope is true about the world – that we are all better off when we are allowed to try and fail, when emotions are central to what we do, when being courageous and being kind are not mutually exclusive, when we are allowed to be complex, complicated and contradictory, yet still be deserving of love and belonging – and proves that it is. Dare to Lead demonstrates that this is all just as true at work as it is in every other area of our lives. She gives me faith that all of us can work to be better leaders, and better colleagues, and more, she shows us just how we can get started.
Have you read this book? We’d love to hear your thoughts and what your key take-aways are.