Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead, has spent seven years driven by the desire to answer the following question: “What, if anything, about the way people are leading today needs to change in order for leaders to be successful in a complex, rapidly changing environment where we’re faced with seemingly intractable challenges and an insatiable demand for innovation?”
The answer she landed upon, after talking with 150 C-suite folks from around the world, is interesting: we need daring leaders, “braver leaders and more courageous cultures.” I can’t imagine that if Brown had interviewed 150 C-suite equivalents in the nonprofit sector that she wouldn’t have gotten answers leading to the same conclusions. After all, we, too, are working in a “complex, rapidly changing environment,” facing “seemingly intractable challenges and an insatiable demand for innovation.”
After getting the answer, Brown went on to cull from pre-existing research as well as more of her own, and determined that daring leadership boils down to four skill sets, all of which, she says, can be taught and measured. I’ve boiled her complex explanations down to those four skills are: vulnerability, values, trust and resilience.
Many leaders will, undoubtedly, gravitate immediately to the last trait in the list—resilience. Gotcha! You don’t need to lead for very long before you either learn to be resilient, gain that thick skin and the art of bouncing back, or you step down from the position of leadership. That doesn’t mean that good leaders don’t get down, don’t feel from time to time like throwing in the towel, don’t feel that the struggle isn’t worth it anymore, or the road is too hard. But resilient leaders don’t rest there long. And you certainly cannot be a brave and courageous leader from the bottom.
But it is actually the first trait in the list—vulnerability—that I wish were more present and to which aspiring leaders gave their attention. Sadly, somewhere along the way, we developed the image of that impervious leader, always in command, always and all knowing. And maybe that once worked. But such an image is no longer reasonable or, if we are going to be honest, even possible.
Our complex, rapidly changing world makes it impossible for one person to know it all, to understand it all, to be in command of it all to the extent that would allow that one person to be the best one to make decisions. Today, for certain, we are far better allowing a multi-party brain trust to work towards the decision, and then have the leader step up and take responsibility for that decision.
To do this, however, requires that vulnerability. It requires being completely comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” and/or “I want help.” Such a simple, declarative statement to make and yet one of the hardest things for so many leaders to say. Why? A lack of courage. You wouldn’t think that it takes courage to ask for help, but if your image of a leader, or the image held by those you are leading, is the all powerful and all knowing, the wizard before the curtain is pulled back, then you can understand easily how important courage and bravery are. The shift, as Brown puts it, is moving from wanting to always be right to wanting to do it right. (Peter Drucker also talks about leaders wanting to do it right, but in a very different vein: he says the difference between a manager and a leader is that managers want to do things right while leaders want to do the right thing).
I regularly ask students what they see as the traits of a leader. I always get the usual suspects in response—visionary, great communicator, good listener, inspirational, etc., But I cannot recall anyone naming courage or bravery—or any of their synonyms. Sometimes the concept of a risk taker is added to the list, but in the context of being innovative, not being brave and being vulnerable. And in running through the typology of the most common styles of leadership, none includes, directly or indirectly, this notion of bravery.
While reams of pages have been consumed on the topic of leadership—from the various styles of leadership, to how to be a better leader, to the key traits of a leader and more—and Brown’s work is part of this, the reality is that too few leaders actually think about what it means to be a leader, what is involved in leading.
And, sadly, too little of the thought that does take place happens before someone steps into that leadership position. But, it is never too late to start that contemplation. Given that our world is not likely to get less complex, nor the pace of change likely to slow down, every current and aspiring leader would be wise to assess their own degree of courageousness.
Just how brave a leader are you?
Continue the conversation with “What Makes a Superior Leader?” in my upcoming class on how to create and master a successful leadership style. Registration information >>