Leadership Library Review – Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead

July 2013

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brene Brown (Gotham, 2012)

What are the big take-aways?

Brene Brown’s 2010 TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” (the inspiration for this book) is closing in on a whopping 10 million views on the TED website.  In Brown’s – often funny as well as poignant – presentation, she argues that vulnerability is a measure of courage instead of weakness.

Brown is a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and she specializes in research on shame and empathy.   She has discovered, through her work, that the antidote to shame is the embrace of vulnerability.  The people who are most resilient to shame share a common characteristic: a strong belief in their worthiness (i.e. the belief that they are worthy of love and belonging).  Brown calls them the “Wholehearted.”

She writes on pages 11-12 of Daring Greatly:

The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection…[In my research,] the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all of the men and women whom I would describe as Wholehearted.  They attribute everything – from their professional success to their marriages to their proudest parenting moments – to their ability to be vulnerable.

Why do I like it?

I like this book because it discusses complex sensitive topics – like shame and vulnerability – with humor, intellectual rigor and a purpose to share information for the sake of helping people become more courageous.  What leader couldn’t benefit from becoming ever more courageous?

I found that the three chapters of Daring Greatly which have the most direct application to the work I do with my leadership coaching clients (although they’re all relevant) are Chapter 1 “Scarcity: Looking Inside Our Culture of ‘Never Enough,’” Chapter 2 “Debunking the Vulnerability Myths,’” and Chapter 6 “Disruptive Engagement: Daring to Rehumanize Education and Work.”

I also like that the book offers distinctions among the ways “vulnerability” holds various meanings for men and women, and how women and men actually experience vulnerability differently.

In what situations would this be useful?

Useful at any stage of leadership, life and career, Daring Greatly might be most beneficial for a leader who is currently struggling (especially if the struggle, up until this point, has remained a secret or private one).  In chapter 6, “The Vulnerability Armory,” Brown discusses the most common shields against vulnerability that we all use, as well as the harms they cause, and specific strategies for overcoming them.   The shields are “foreboding joy” (also known as “always waiting for the other shoe to drop”); perfectionism; numbing; the “Viking-or-Victim” (win-or-lose) worldview; over-sharing; “serpentining” (dodging vulnerability in ways that are sometimes so ridiculously extreme as to be almost comedic); and “cynicism, criticism, cool, and cruelty.”  If any of these shields resonate for you in terms of the thoughts or behaviors you’re wrestling with, Brown offers an extremely helpful analysis of what’s really going on and exactly what you can do about it.  (In case you’re curious, much of what helps you to let go of reliance on your “armory” has to do with cultivating gratitude, human connection, and present-moment awareness.)

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

If you’re a leader seeking a practical program for working on your own with many of Brown’s concepts – which overlap a lot with authentic leadership theory and positive psychology practices – I recommend Bill George’s Finding Your True North workbook (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library) or Becoming a Resonant Leader by McKee, Boyatzis and Johnston (Harvard Business Press, 2008).  In addition, I’m always a big fan of Kevin Cashman’s Leadership from the Inside Out (also previously reviewed in the Leadership Library). If you’re interested in the psychological side of this subject matter, particularly in modern interpretations of Jungian “shadow work,” a good introductory resource is The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the Power of Your True Self by Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford and Marianne Williamson (yet another selection previously reviewed in the Leadership Library).

If the personal, spiritual aspect of vulnerability is what engages you most and you’re up for a challenge, take a look at the lovely and provocative Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr (Jossey-Bass, 2011).  (Note: It’s about important transitions, but not necessarily mid-life crises, as the title might imply.)

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