Brené Brown Vulnerability, Losing Armor, and Gaining Power

Friday, December 6, 2019
Christopher Sirk

Brené Brown thinks it’s time to get in touch with our sensitive side. Yes, you too, Mr. and Mrs. I-Have-a-Leadership-Role.

Who is she? A vulnerability researcher (yes, that’s a real thing), interviewed by Oprah Winfrey multiple times, and the host of one of the most viral TED Talks ever, 'the power of vulnerability.'

Her 2010 TEDxHouston appearance has clocked 37 million views to date. Dare to Lead, her new book on the future of leadership, is a #1 New York Times Bestseller.

Brown has struck a nerve with the public by talking about neglected aspects of human connection.

When it comes to working life, her lessons offer some profound guidance on leading others and dealing with the vicissitudes of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. As automation and machine learning change the nature of work, she offers a powerful reminder of humanity’s inimitable resources and how we can best wield them.

Brown’s path to realizing vulnerability is, oddly enough, a strength

Just to get it out of the way, and placate you doubting Thomases out there—Brown is de facto not one of those self-help people with bats in the belfry and crystal skulls in their office.

Indeed, you’ll be pleased to know she’s a down-to-earth, dyed-in-the-wool fifth-generation Texan with a very unconventional, dare I say authentic path to professional glory.

Raised in a conventional midwestern, German-American household where you’re expected to “suck it up,” Brown learned to deal with life’s toughness with a stiff upper lip. She was inculcated with the idea that big city, coastal people were emotionally fragile ninnies who split hairs over the latest micro-aggression, presumably while eating endive salads.

This stoic outlook served her well in many ways, she admits. However, as she muddled further into her twenty-somethings, the blind spots in this strong-willed mentality were exposed. Adulthood revealed new ambiguities and complexities, and she found herself ill-equipped to address life’s underlying emotional risks and uncertainties.

She decided to go to school to figure herself out. In the process, she ended up joining the ranks of all those self-helpers who end up as social workers, psychologists, and any other number of -ists.

She first took a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from University of Texas Austin, then a Master’s in the same field from the University of Houston. She realized, however, that down-in-the-trenches social work was a bit messy for her, and decided to get more on the academic, big ideas side of things.

She got her PhD in 2002 and became a research professor at the University of Houston, where she now holds the Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work.

In 2010, the year of her extremely popular TEDx talk, she also published The Gifts of Imperfection. The book sold briskly and racked up great reviews from critics, further raising her profile—all the way up to ‘public figure’ status.

In 2012, Brown gave another slightly less viral, yet nonetheless, super well-received TED talk, Listening to Shame. Then she published Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, which became a New York Times bestseller. A year later, she followed up that success with The Power of Vulnerability.

These days, she’s a much-in-demand guest speaker.

Her recurring message, delivered with empathy and self-reflection, is beguilingly simple and important, yet oddly not thought about or discussed that much.

It goes something like this: vulnerability is a precondition to being authentic, being present, living wholeheartedly, and making life more meaningful.

The more composed and soldierly people appear to be, the more often their true feelings are being repressed, and their decision-making process clouded by over-thinking, and thinking beyond the moment into the future or the past.

You may be thinking “gee, this is just an update to ‘laughing on the outside, crying on the inside,’” but Brown’s perspective on appearances/realities is far more nuanced than any “Tears of a Clown” style painting—no matter how formally brilliant—could ever be.

Brown investigates how our understanding of vulnerability is riddled with contradictions. We know it’s a trait we need to indulge if we want to bond with others and develop meaningful relationships. At the same, it’s often taken as a symptom of personal weakness.

This paradox is well illustrated by studying vulnerability’s symbolization in American Sign Language. The word/concept can be translated one of two ways, with distinctly different meanings in tone.

One way is by signing a lilting figure with one’s fingers on top of the palm. In other words, it literally means “weak in the knees.” Not so good.

But the other way of signing vulnerability is a Clark- Kent-revealing-his-Superman-uniform type gesture, which of course translates to mean “open heart.” Pretty good.

The second interpretation, is, of course, more Brown’s cup of tea. For her, courage is underpinned—rather than undermined—by vulnerability.

The importance of leading in a way that sometimes pisses people off

Brown’s opinions on dissent-seeking, open leadership and teamwork cuts against the conformity of opinion that haunts workplaces these days.

Although the job market has undoubtedly improved lots since the 2008 recession, the re-jigging of the socio-economic status quo in the last decade has led to more people toeing the line and being ‘nice’ in order to keep the good jobs they’ve clinched.

Self-preservation makes sense, but when it comes to leadership, avoiding conflict, risk, and placing a premium on social harmony is just not the way to inspire and achieve.

Why? Because vulnerability is where creativity and innovation come from. In Brown’s assessment, “if failure’s not an option, innovation’s not an option.”

Brown believes vulnerability is all about investigating and accepting imperfection. It’s about the willingness to accept the fact your way of doing things will piss a few people off (at the very least), and the willingness to take ownership of mistakes and productively absorb criticisms.

One of the myths about leadership is that it requires a repression of vulnerability. However, vulnerability is—in reality—the most fundamental prerequisite to courage.

And courage, of course, is what it takes to lead.

People are always looking for courage in others, but are often scared to find it in themselves.

It’s scary to know that if you put yourself out there over and over again, you’ll be rejected some time or other (and possibly a lot, for a long time). The issue is how prepared you are to accept this and keep moving on.

Knowing and managing the three elements of vulnerability

There are three key elements of vulnerability, according to Brown’s research: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. These need to be managed to get the most out of vulnerability.

Of course, your expression of vulnerability needs to have boundaries. You wouldn’t stand in front of your quarterly meeting with shareholders and say that you don’t really know what you’re doing and you’re freaking out. Giving a blow-by-blow of your latest emotional meltdown on social media isn’t what Brown’s condoning either.

Brown’s model of vulnerability has nothing to do with ‘oversharing’ at every given opportunity.  Sympathy and attention-seeking are not very productive motivators, because they focus attention on the leader-figure, rather than the audience you’re trying to reach.

The ideal motivation for vulnerability is the chance to be real with yourself, in the process opening up an opportunity for other people to identify with you. When people understand where you’re coming from with your thought process and decisions, they’ll be stirred to introspection. That can build a powerful bond between speaker and listeners, as you become ‘one of them’ rather than their ‘other.’

It’s important to control your emotional exposure, and make sure you’re vulnerable with the right people—a mentor, a close associate, or a tight-knit group where you can speak your mind without filters.

A good leader knows what the next goal is, and is willing to concede when they need help to get to the next step. It’s like putting up a fence around a garden—letting things happen organically on the inside while keeping the cloven-hoofed interlopers from gobbling up what you’re trying to grow.

When you create boundaries for vulnerability, it becomes a productive, transformative force. It can drive motivation, rather than becoming mired in wheel-spinning, self-absorbed self-examination.

Dealing with shame, finding the courage

Shame is a major reason why people don’t want to be vulnerable. We really don’t want to feel like people are looking down on us for our mistakes, particularly if we’re supposed to be in charge.

Brown points to gender cliches.

For her, the shame trigger for women is often pressure for agreeableness, to conform to behavioral expectations and not arouse conflict. The shame trigger for men, on the other hand, is quite often the possibility of appearing weak.

Times have changed, but women are still, on average, socially conditioned not to rock the boat too much. Men are still often socially conditioned to be more assertive—to conceal or deaden emotions—to retain the appearance of total self-control.

That said, leadership has a tendency to flatten some of these gender expectations, because male or female leaders alike have, in Brown’s assessment, “hitched their self-worth to what they accomplish.”  

When your working life is defined by your leadership role, vulnerability can feel like a recipe for catastrophic self-undermining.

Brown’s research finds that successful, leading figures of both genders overwhelmingly suggest being ‘thick-skinned’ was a key element to their success. For women, being ‘just as strong’ as men, if not stronger, was often touted as a way to be taken seriously and move up in the world.

It also turns out comfort and courage are indeed mutually exclusive.

It’s uncomfortable to be courageous, but leaders need to “create a culture where discomfort is normal.” When you’re on the edge, you’re doing what you need to be doing.

Brown knows it’s a lot to ask people to come to work and be ill at ease, but learning and innovation are uncomfortable exercises in and of themselves. You need to challenge ideas to do something new, and in the process, you need to ask people to challenge one another.

There has to be an exchange of feedback that generates tension. Constructive feedback needs to create reflection, which sometimes requires being “taken down a peg.”

A good leader creates space for talent “to step in and do what they do well.” Rewarding courageous behavior drives assertiveness throughout a team.

Leadership requires a fundamental “willingness to show up and be seen, even if there are no guarantees,” in Brown’s view. That means cultivating a resiliency to shame, and an embrace of failure as a necessary step in learning.

Vulnerability can be an immensely powerful tool for leadership. It allows you to come off as a real, authentic person with the people you’re working with. A powerful exchange of empathy on both sides can make your company culture so much stronger.

After all, there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re working in a “bullshit” atmosphere, in an environment awash in inauthentic exchanges. If leadership doesn’t connect with the team, the long-term consequences are clearly going to be negative.

Holding through the fear: authentic team leadership

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…”

                                                                                  — Theodore Roosevelt

Trying something totally new can put your stomach in your throat.  But for Brown, courageous and meaningful progress will always leave one feeling unsettled. Getting ahead of the curve is inherently scary and requires a healthy tolerance for risk.

Even if we happen to find ourselves in a leadership role, that doesn’t mean we get to be more comfortable. Indeed, we’re going to have to learn to be even more on tenterhooks.

That’s okay, provided we can embrace Brown’s mantra for vulnerable leadership: “I’m enough, so I’m willing to show up.”