Daring Greatly: Showing up at Brene Brown Live

August 14, 2019

On the 31st July I was fortunate enough to attend Brene Brown Live at the International Convention Centre in Sydney. Brown is currently one of the most highly regarded public speakers globally who can command $100,000 a pop for events such as these. It’s a fair price tag, though, when you consider her unending achievements. A professor at University of Houston, her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability is one of the top five most viewed videos of all time, and she is the first person to have a filmed talk available to be downloaded on Netflix. She is also a prolific writer having published five top selling #1 books in the NYT - The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring GreatlyRising StrongBraving the Wilderness and Dare to Lead.  It is the latter – the culmination of 7 years of extensive research - on which the live session is based.  

Taking our seats, my friend reminds me that the last time we were at this convention centre was to see Culture Club in 1985.  I’m slowly digesting this as Brene Brown walks onstage and the atmosphere all becomes a bit Tim Robbins. Suddenly I’m feeling like Maya Rudolph in Wine Country, where, noticing Brene Brown in a restaurant, she and her posse of starstruck Gen X girlfriends approach her with a long list of existential questions (only to be sternly reminded by Brene to keep their boundaries). I scan the crowd, expecting it to be comprised of the same cohort of Gen X women, but I notice that it is far more diverse. In fact, it is filled with men and women from all backgrounds, life stages and professions, and is 1000+ strong.  It is obvious that Brown has a profound appeal to people from all walks of life and I wonder if this is because we all crave reassurance that it’s OK to suck at life. 

Image Source: Brene Brown Live 2019

Right off the bat, it’s clear that Brown is a gifted storyteller and a captivating speaker. She walks us through fascinating case studies based on 20 years of research into leadership, with everyone from Silicon Valley CEOs to engineers and the military. The theme of the day is courage, which Brown sees as a prerequisite for strong leadership. Courage is broadly articulated as stepping into the arena where uncomfortable fears, feelings, perceived ‘failures’ and personal beliefs reside and rumbling with these openly in the workplace. Brown bemoans the fact that these behaviours and mindsets are mostly absent in the upper echelons of today’s organisations. But she is also keen to point out that courage is a skill that can be learned over time. While it is hard work – you may make enemies and skin your knees in the process – she points out that it is worth the toil. Her research suggests that by acting courageously, leaders are more likely establish trust, build cohesion and drive productivity within teams. Stepping out of the comfort zone and into the arena of courage is thus crucial for business success. 

We are introduced to the four pillars of courageous leadership upfront – vulnerability, living into values, braving trust and rising skills.  Vulnerability is defined as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. It requires us to ‘embrace the suck’ – the idea that we may not be brilliant and most likely trip up, but we should throw ourselves in anyway. But it works out in the end, because displaying vulnerability connects you to others as they see you as just like them. Brown presents a compelling example of this, introducing the results of a recent study which revealed that ‘asking for help’, a key vulnerability signifier, is one of the most important behaviours establishing trust in leaders.  At one point, the crowd is invited to explore what vulnerability feels like, through a collective song and dance. The prospect of this makes me instinctively recoil, but it supports one of Browns’ points well – that our deep discomfort with being vulnerable makes it one of the hardest pillars of courage to lean into. 

‘Living your Values’ seems familiar probably because this is what I’ve been trying to do for the last 20 years, but for the most part unsuccessfully. Values are our human belief systems which act as life beacons, guiding us through difficulties and shaping our choices. From a business perspective, values provide clarity on what is important and what our intentions, actions and words should be, so essentially teams are singing from the same song sheet. A ‘watch out’, however is that values must be attached to measurable actions. Brown takes a swipe at common corporate values such as Integrity, stating they are just meaningless axioms unless a set of codified behaviours sit beneath them. Towards the end of the session, we were invited to workshop our own values and identify the behaviours that represent these. I was struck by how difficult this was but appreciate that this was a smart way to bring personal relevance to the learnings.

There are 7 elements to the third pillar, ‘Braving Trust’:  boundaries (clarity about what’s OK and what’s not) reliability (doing what you say you’ll do), accountability (taking responsibility), keeping things in the vault (confidentiality), integrity (doing what’s right), non-judgement, and generosity (generous interpretations of behaviour) – neatly captured in the acronym ‘BRAVING’.  Following on is the fourth pillar, ‘Learning to Rise’. Here Brown emphasises the importance of tackling team setbacks, which can damage the self-esteem and confidence required for innovation and creativity. This is because in the absence of data and uncertainty we construct stories about setbacks which are negative and self-limiting - stories she describes as our ‘shitty first drafts’. The solution? Align on went wrong in the moment, help uncouple feelings or stories from evidence, and train teams upfront how-to re-set when challenges arise.  In a nod to the resilience movement, Brown urges us to reframe “getting your ass kicked” as not a symbol of failure, but an opportunity for personal growth.

We moved onto exploring barriers to courageous leadership towards the end of the session. Brown identifies the key barriers as perfectionism, anger, desire to be right, criticism, cynicism and wanting to be in control – common mindsets in the office which, if unchecked, can lead to toxic work environments. She then introduces ‘Difficult Conversations’ which - if a show of hands in the audience are anything to go by - is one of the most anxiety-inducing scenarios leaders face in the workplace, so much so, that it is typically best tackled by avoidance. Brown wants todays leaders to lean into these conversations and give honest, open feedback because if we don’t, it is detrimental to the teams’ personal growth. At this point, Brown role plays instructive yet uncomfortable scenarios of how to have these conversations by drawing on her own experiences. I admire her matter of fact manner when she acts out telling a friend ‘you can’t drink at my party’ followed by playing out a time when she pulled up a colleague for her “problem with reliability”. My first thoughts were how impossible it would be to execute, followed by how uncomfortable it would be to be on the receiving end of someone saying - in so many words – you’re not cutting it. Showing up with honest, open feedback and your intentions laid bare, certainly requires a steely confidence and detachment from the personal which many of us would find challenging.   

The session was inspiring, illuminating and sometimes confronting (on the personal side, I learnt that some of my parenting tactics, may be little sub-par). For that cohort of Gen Xers in the audience, it’s pleasing to know that it’s OK to suck sometimes and our perceived ‘failures’ and shortcomings don’t define us. As business leaders, it was hard to learn that our common, habituated behaviours can be damaging in the long term by eroding trust and demotivating teams. But I was left questioning how easy it would be to circuit break the culture of avoidance, stoicism and restraint which so often shows up in the boardroom. Indeed, as one participant rightly pointed out, displaying our vulnerability at work is more likely to risk corroding our value rather than strengthening it. Brown’s extensive research has hopefully shifted the dial. By demonstrating that showing up with emotion, fear, vulnerability and honesty can drive productivity and business success, she has exposed traditional leadership models as at best lacking utility, at worst culturally corrosive. Without a doubt, her work has mounted a compelling case for the shift toward a more human centred leadership model where the courage to embrace our shared humanity counts.