Notes: Dare to Lead

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brene Brown  

What daring leadership skills are you currently working on?

Leadership - a much written and spoken about topic. Do a search and you'll find articles that identify anywhere from 5 to 101 leadership skills. Yes, one hundred and one! These varying accounts make it easy to feel overwhelmed, inadequate, and justified in holding off on assuming leadership roles when we think we still have 90+ skills to strengthen.

Instead of looking to the "experts," and focusing on an idealized version of a leader, have you paused to reflect about how you might already be leading, what's important to you as a leader, the needs of the people you're leading, and what you've respected about other leaders? Brene Brown defines a leader as "anyone who takes responsibility for finding potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential." Whether a parent, a teacher, a CEO, a coach, or acting in a variety of other roles, chances are that you have assumed the first part of this definition. But it's not the title that matters. Throughout her book, Brown describes daring leadership as an on-going process of practicing hard skills and showing up to do brave work.

The courage and vulnerability needed to create a culture of healthy striving in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected can be daunting. Even though it's the focus of her research, Brown acknowledges, "I can't wait to share what I've learned...why it works, why it's really hard in places, and where I keep screwing up (just to keep it real)." She not only encourages readers to "embrace the suck," she models it through her vulnerable storytelling.

My Messy Middle: Following her lead, I'll admit to struggling with this post. I finished reading the book over a month ago (maybe even two), but struggled with creating the graphic and sitting down to reflect. I could blame the holidays and other events, but that's the superficial answer. The reality is that I fell victim to many of the "armored leadership" traps that Brown identifies. My perfectionism tinged with shame over adequately representing her work combined with numbing behaviors like extra time perusing social media and playing mindless phone games topped off by zigzagging around it on many occasions (it made it onto many of my daily to-do lists, but then never got done).

I would start on the graphic, but then would struggle to figure out how to get it all on one page. Or I'd have a new idea for how to represent her work. Or I'd get frustrated because I wasn't enjoying the process and then crumple up the paper. In the end, I'm happy with the design I used. I'm no artist, but I reminded myself that perfectionism isn't the goal of these posts. My goal is to process what I read, organize my takeaways in a way that makes sense to me when I want to refer back to the work, and provide another point of entry to the book for people that are visual learners. Clarity helped me finally move it forward.

On the left in the red, jagged shapes are some of the qualities of armored and self-protected leadership that prevents growth. On the right in the blue cloud shapes float the results that come from daring leadership - where most of us aspire to be. The main part of the page, however, is dedicated to the many skills that require repeated, mindful practice.

Another way I see it, the left side represents our comfort zone or the places we go/devices we use when we're scared and want to protect ourselves. The arrows are the "messy middle" or the ways in which we can step outside of our comfort zone in order to grow as leaders and support the growth of others. And messy it will be. One of my favorite quotes from the book drives this point home, "The only way I know to get knowledge into our bones is to practice it, screw it up, learn more, repeat." The clouds reveal the "why" that motivates daring leaders to continue to step into the discomfort.

Patterns/Stories: I've been familiar with Brown's work for many years, but this time something new jumped out at me. In talking about rumbling, she states this universal truth, "In the absence of data, we will always make up stories." Our brains connect dots in order to get the dopamine hit that comes with recognizing and completing patterns. But often times, the information our brains fill in creates a misleading story.

I love patterns. I naturally seek them out and see them and clearly have gotten used to the dopamine infusions that they create. That can be really great for creating efficient systems and anticipating outcomes, but it can also be really limiting in how I show up to rumbles.

Awareness of this has led me to be mindful of when it's a beneficial skill versus when it prevents collaboration with my partner and openness to new, creative ideas. In other words, when do I want to find a way to connect the dots and when do I need to accept that I might not need to see how the ideas come together and the story ends in that moment?

These are the three skills I'm currently focusing on to help:

Vulnerability: Brown's definition of vulnerability is "the courage to show up when you can't predict the outcome or control it." You can probably see where I'm going here, but my pattern seeking brain loves predicting outcomes and being right about it. Control and I are close friends.

Current practice: Notice when it's happening and getting in the way. Take a breath to ground myself and recognize that the discomfort about not knowing the outcome is okay. Practice shifting my mindset away from "oh no, I'm overwhelmed because I don't get it" to one of "what a fun new idea to play with - this will be exciting."

Curiosity: Curiosity has been essential to helping me engage in rumbles and come out of them in a way that leads to growth for me, my partner, and the business. It turns out, though, that all questions are not created equal. When I first tried practicing curiosity, I'd reword my statement into a leading question to which I had a clear answer that I wanted to hear (still trying to control the results). Needless to say, that didn't go over well. My partner would feel painted into a corner and it eroded trust because I wasn't leaving room for his insights.

Current Practice: Before I ask a question, I try to remember to pause and ask myself: Do I already "know" the answer to this question? Am I open to hearing an answer that may surprise me or be uncomfortable to hear?

Clarity & Calm: These have been critical to being able to practice vulnerability and curiosity. Because I have a history of asking leading questions, I now sometimes say, "I'm asking this and I don't have any expectations about how you will answer," so my partner knows that he has space to be open.

Current Practice: Getting enough sleep and play especially after traveling. I love that she identified a quality of a daring leader is "modeling and supporting rest, play, and recovery." Also when I feel my body reacting during a rumble (for me it's usually my chest tightening), I pause to assess what got triggered in me. Often it's a story from years ago that gets called back up, but is not relevant to the current situation. Recognizing that allows me to stave off the emotional reaction and return to a calmer place so I can be present to the conversation (not always - but working on it).

Wrap Up: I have a feeling that I will be revisiting Dare to Lead again in the future because in a year, my personal and professional development might require me to focus on other skills. Or the slippery slope back to my armored comfort zone might lure me back to old habits. Staying mindful and getting more and more comfortable with discomfort will make it easier to be daring. As Brown has said in her previous work, "You can choose courage or you can choose comfort, but you cannot choose both."