Women Share Wisdom: Dr. Brene Brown Explains How Leaders Fail

Why it might not be such a bad thing.

Authored by Raquel Guarino

The 2018 Texas Conference for Women is an annual event designed to empower, inspire, and advise women as they advance in their careers. Content Strategist Raquel Guarino attended the conference and came back with a wealth of new knowledge that anyone could apply to their career or business. In this series called "Women Share Wisdom," Raquel will divulge the tips, tricks, and advice she gained from the successful women she encountered at the event.


Dr. Brene Brown is a research professor from Houston, Texas, whose work focuses on courage, shame, empathy, and vulnerability. Five of her books are New York Times #1 Bestsellers. She is also known for her TED Talk called "The Power of Vulnerability," which has been viewed more than 37 million times. In her keynote speech at the 2018 Texas Conference for Women, Dr. Brown turned her attention toward leadership. After conducting research that surveyed 150 leaders across the world spanning all walks of life (including executives at Pixar, political leaders, and high-ranking members of the CIA), Dr. Brown asked tough questions to understand what makes a great leader. Here is what she found.


What does the future of leadership look like?

Among the leaders surveyed across the world, Dr. Brown found a common thread in all of the responses: the world needs braver, bolder leaders. Beyond that, though, many of the participants had trouble articulating a clear skill set which could precipitate that leadership.


What is a leader?

According to Dr. Brown, a true leader is anyone who holds themselves responsible for finding solutions and implementing processes. A leader is someone who is willing to show up and do the work; they're someone who not only believes in themselves, but in other people, too.


Read Now: Giving Thanks: Our Favorite Examples of Companies Showing Gratitude


What isn't leadership?

Dr. Brown explained the common practices people implement that don't exemplify courageous leadership.

  1. Avoiding hard conversations. One obstacle Dr. Brown became aware of was people's inability to handle tough conversations directly. Because our culture encourages people to be "nice" and "polite," people generally prefer to sidestep difficult situations. Additionally, when confronted with issues, people prefer to talk about the person rather than to them. Poor leaders often perpetuate a culture of indirectness and non-communication. Dr. Brown's suggests two alternative mantras to combat this. First, she advises people to "choose discomfort over resentment." Second, when communicating this discomfort, the more transparent, the better: "Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind."
  2. Not attending to the fears and feelings of others. Dr. Brown said, "You can either lean in and attend to the fears and feelings of others, or you will have to spend time playing whack-a-mole with people’s bad behavior." Rather than discounting people's ideas, feelings, and fears, she suggests taking time to truly listen, understand, and work with your team to overcome obstacles.
  3. Corroding trust. Dr. Brown paraphrased an impactful quote from one of the heads of Campbell's Soup: "People think trust is an important thing. What they don't realize is that it's the only thing."
  4. Staying stuck in setbacks. We have to teach people how get back up after encountering obstacles, advises Dr. Brown. Leaders need to onboard their employees to prepare for failure. It's important for companies to tell them, "Here's what happens when you get your ass kicked at work." She compared onboarding for failure to parachuting: you wouldn't want to learn how to land while you're already in the air--it's something you have to learn before you get on the plane.
  5. Not innovating. There is no innovation or creativity without failure. In order to innovate, you need to push  your employees to take bigger risks and to fail continuously.
  6. Poor problem-solving.  Oftentimes, people are intent on getting rid of a problem but don't take enough time to properly identify the problem in the first place. A common mistake is not sitting down and saying, "Let's talk about what happened. Where did we drop the ball?"
  7. Not caring about inclusivity, equity, and diversity: If you’re not willing to have these conversations, you will not be leading in the next five years, Dr. Brown said. Because so many people are often too afraid of what others are going to think, rather than having any conversation at all, these issues get swept under the rug completely. “Courageous leaders are never silent about hard things," even when those hard things mean sometimes "you’re going to get your ass handed to you." The more privileged you are, the more you’re going to get called out, the expert explained. "To opt out of these difficult conversations because they make you uncomfortable is the definition of privilege,” she said. “You can’t do that. You’ve got to lean in.” It’s painful work, but that's no excuse to ignore it.
  8. Shaming and blaming. This is not a leadership style, the Houston-based researcher warned. As a leader, you should stay away from name calling and comparing people. According to science, people can only tolerate a certain amount of shame until they shut down neurobiologically.
  9. Perfectionism. There's a difference between perfectionism and healthy striving: perfectionism is about what other people think; striving is about what you personally want to achieve. Additionally, perfectionism is the idea that doing things perfectly will shield you from blame, but what it really does is keep you from being seen. “Perfectionism is holding a knife to our own throats, and it doesn’t work,” Dr. Brown explained.


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