How to create a culture of courage, and why

Brave leadership is teachable—and essential to business success—according to researcher Brené Brown.
By: | July 16, 2019

In a study about the future of leadership that involved extensive interviews with global business leaders, Dr. Brené Brown and her colleagues found one dominant theme: brave leaders will drive business success.

“We need people who will build more courageous cultures, brave leaders who will rehumanise work,” Brown said at the US Society for HR Management’s annual conference in Las Vegas last month. Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and author of five New York Times bestsellers, shared insights from the more than 400,000 pieces of data her team collected.

In their interviews, the researchers found that, instead of identifying the actual skill sets brave leaders share, people could much more readily define what a lack of brave leadership looked like:

  • avoidance of tough conversations;
  • fears and feelings abounding;
  • getting stuck in setbacks;
  • problem-solving challenges;
  • obstacles to inclusivity; and
  • the pervasiveness of shame and blame.

“Brave leaders are never quiet about hard things,” she said. “It’s about excavating the unsaid, the stuff that gets in the way of good work.”

However, HR leaders struggle when they expect leaders to have those tough conversations, she noted, largely because they’re not armed with the skill set to tackle those challenges.

“Asking people to show up and have hard conversations is like a flight attendant saying to me, ‘You’ve got a million miles, so we’d like you to land the plane.’ I just don’t have that skill set. People don’t have the hard-conversation skill set.”

But, she said, her team found in its research that it is possible to train people in brave leadership: “Courage is teachable, it’s observable and it’s measurable,” she said. “We can teach people how to show up and how to deal with the hard things because leaders are called to choose courage over comfort all day long.”

Going into the study, Brown hypothesised that fear was the primary obstacle to daring leadership; however, the researchers instead determined the major impediment was “armour”—the self-protection mechanisms we can become overly reliant upon.

To counter that, Brown recommends four principles that can help foster braver leaders:

Rumbling with the vulnerable: This is, by far, the area where future leaders should concentrate, Brown said—but it’s also the hardest. Vulnerability involves “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure,” all of which are vital to courage. She noted that most people are raised to believe vulnerability is a weakness—but also that they should be courageous, setting them up for a constant struggle. “We don’t want to [be vulnerable] because we think that, if we put ourselves out there, we’re going to get hurt, we’re going to fail and we’re going to know disappointment. Yes, yes and yes. But that’s courage.”

Living in our values: Brown noted that, while nearly all organisations have a written set of values, only 10% actually operationalise those values into observable behaviours—and hold people accountable for carrying them out.

Braving trust: Leaders should focus on improving trust with their workforces by zeroing in on seven actionable dimensions of trust: boundaries, reliability, accountability, the ‘vault’ (confidentiality issues), integrity, non-judgement and generosity.

Learning to rise: When a difficult circumstance takes place at work, our brains automatically make up a story to explain it—in a way that offers us the most protection. “In the absence of data, we make up stories; we’re hardwired for it,” Brown said. Those stories often highlight our personal insecurities and fears. Brave leaders, however, resist that tendency by instead confronting uncertainty with the mindset of “This is the story I’m telling myself”— a shift that Brown said is rooted in vulnerability and can build resilience.