“Vulnerability: The Key to Courage,” Interview of Brene Brown by Dan Harris (10% Happier Podcast #185, 2019)
What are the big take-aways?
While the word “vulnerability” makes many people cringe, social scientist and leadership researcher Brene Brown asserts, “There is no courage without vulnerability.” Stereotypically super-tough leaders who have been trained by Brown, such as Navy SEALs and NFL players, agree with her.
Why do I like it?
Brown defines vulnerability simply as the emotion we feel when we are in the midst of uncertainty, risk or emotional exposure. (Vulnerability does not “equal” personal disclosure, which is a common misconception.) Brown explains that as kids we learn to deal with emotional pain and the fear of it by “armoring up” using strategies like control, cynicism and perfectionism. When this no longer serves us as adults (Brown tells the story of how she herself endured a breakdown over her perfectionism several years ago), we can operationalize vulnerability by developing the courage to stay with challenges and problems rather than immediately switch into the self-protective mode of trying to fix or control things. Interestingly, sometimes vulnerability is actually more about setting strong boundaries than anything else.
In what situations would this be useful?
This information about vulnerability being the key to courage is actionable in all kinds of day-to-day leadership situations (in organizations, on teams, at work, at home, in friendships, etc.). Brown describes a leader who believes in vulnerability as someone who does not punish failure or imperfection. She says a courageous leader encourages innovation and creativity by establishing (and, I assume, modeling) the psychological safety that allows for unarmored uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. “What gets in the way,” she observes, “is giving in to the fear” and armoring-up.
For example, leaders, managers and supervisors often feel vulnerable when giving tough feedback, even though they are the ones holding the status power. They fear they will deliver the feedback poorly and/or hurt people’s feelings and/or get a reaction that makes them feel uncomfortable, so they are vague or hold back. I agree with Brown that managers need to develop the courage to offer compassionate, hard feedback: “clear is kind; unclear is unkind,” she says. This requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Brown explains that learning how to feel uncomfortable, and breathing through the (often literal) pain, is something our culture doesn’t teach very well and we as a society need to learn more effective strategies for how to handle what she calls “the physiology of vulnerability.”
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
I really liked Brown latest book, Dare to Lead, which defines the ways “daring leadership” is effective, in contrast with “armored leadership.” The heart of the book is a section entitled “Rumbling with Vulnerability” containing segments with headings like “The Call to Courage,” “Shame and Empathy,” and “Curiosity and Grounded Confidence.” (If any of those words excite, intrigue or trigger you, then I particularly recommend this book!) For another approach toward much the same stuff, check out The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership (I love the book, but you could start with the handout of the same name at this website).
For a looser, wider-ranging conversation with Brown about this topic, listen to her fun and fascinating interview with Russell Brand, entitled “Vulnerability and Power,” from Brand’s “Under the Skin” podcast. It’s a rollicking exploration of addiction, recovery, politics, leadership and spirituality, much of which is about practicing the courage to hold boundaries in everyday life (e.g., marriage, parenting, friendship, work and sobriety).