brave leaders inc

Brave Leaders and Courageous Cultures

In Part 1 of this series, it was mentioned that talking about ‘brave leadership’ sounds awkward and feels a little elusive. In Part 2, the focus will be on brave leadership and courageous cultures and why it matters. The expectations that we have on leaders is huge, in that we expect them to be able to ‘do it all’ (have the capabilities and skills to pull it off) and ‘be it all’ (e.g. embrace qualities like integrity, emotional intelligence, presence, resilience and generally be a good human). I also mentioned that real leadership – as opposed to counterfeit leadership – is risky. Risk, by its very nature requires leaders who are prepared to be vulnerable. 

The Heart of Daring to Lead

Brené Brown has spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. A strong theme emerged in the research for her latest book Dare to Lead and that is that a vast majority of people said that we needed braver leaders and more courageous cultures. Harder to grapple with however was identifying the specific behaviours that a brave leader would demonstrate.

Four Skill Sets emerged from the research:

  1. Rumbling with Vulnerability
  2. Living into Our Values
  3. BRAVING Trust
  4. Learning to Rise

The series will provide a narrative that aims to draw together the threads around the why, the what and the how from a practitioner’s perspective and as a Certified Dare to Lead Facilitator. 

Why Do We Need Brave Leaders Anyway?

We need brave (and braver) leaders in almost every organisational context imaginable – for example whether it be having a difficult conversation about an important cross-functional issue; providing feedback to an underperformer or to someone demonstrating poor behaviour; asking the hard questions that need to be asked; or challenging the status quo to create meaningful change. Without it, teams and organisations are destined for sub-optimal performance at best, and at worst, extinction, with the latter extracting a devastating human toll. 

To link back to Brené Brown’s work, this is described as armoured leadership or what we do to protect ourselves. While we’ll go deeper into armoured leadership in future articles, in short, it is highlighted by things like avoiding tough conversations, providing no or little feedback, fostering a culture of shame and blame, or not holding people accountable.

When confronting conversations are not part of the culture and operating rhythm, or when ineffective or dangerous practices are not challenged, the consequences are a sick team or organisation. While we don’t care to admit it, systems theory would suggest that there are enough people inside the team or organisation gaining enough benefits to consciously or sub-consciously subvert change. In other words, there are enough people benefitting from the system staying exactly it is. Take for example a high potential program that accelerates the upward movement of an organisation’s best and brightest. This of course places pressure on the level above them who are usually put in charge of their development and mentorship. Of course, no-one will usually highlight this systemic conflict, least of all those looking down at the up and coming high potentials, for fear of pointing out their own shortcomings. We need brave leaders to confront hard things. Brave leadership and courageous cultures are needed to keep an organisation healthy.

The Myth of the Spontaneous and Self-Sustaining Team

Meg Wheatly sums up the challenges of a bunch of people coming together in teams and organisations in her book, “A Simpler Way” when she makes the following observation:

“What we know about individuals, no matter how rich the details, will never give us the ability to predict how they will behave as a system. Once individuals link together, they become something different. Relationships change us, reveal us, evoke more from us. Only when we join with others do our gifts become visible, even to ourselves.”

I sometimes hear leaders peddling this myth, but in reality, it is just that – a myth. While I acknowledge that in certain circumstances, particularly an emergency scenario, even complete strangers can come together in service of a common goal, it is a very narrow field of play and is usually short-lived. Leaders and teams must be ever-vigilant in working on themselves continually.

We’re All Afraid

What was particularly interesting about the research was that those leaders who demonstrated ‘brave leadership’ said that they were just as afraid as those leaders who didn’t demonstrate brave leadership. They chose to act however, when others didn’t.

The dictionary definition of fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.” Based on that definition, fear is a very familiar foe, particularly during challenging and uncertain times. Fear of course is a vital response to physical and emotional danger that has been pivotal throughout evolution. If people didn’t feel fear, they wouldn’t be able to protect themselves from legitimate threats—which often had life-or-death consequences in the primitive world.

Last time that I looked, I didn’t see dinosaurs or other dangerous animals sneaking around the hallways of corporations waiting to find their next meal. No, over time, we have created many other types of threats to our sense of safety – but mostly it’s not a physical threat. In the modern world, there are many scenarios that may induce feelings of fear, from public speaking, anxiety around job security, or an angry boss. For most of us, these scenarios invoke the same fight-flight-or-freeze responses that our ancestors experienced. A perceived threat to our ego or psychological safety activates the same survival mechanism. To paraphrase Brené, leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to people’s fears and feelings, or spend a lot more time attending to managing ineffective and unproductive behaviour. 

A Way Forward

Whether an individual occupies a position of authority (who we arbitrarily and often inaccurately call a leader) or someone who chooses to exercise leadership (my preferred framing), we need to help leaders craft a pathway towards braver leadership. The research identified four courage skill sets (mentioned at the start of this article): Rumbling with Vulnerability; Living into Our Values; BRAVING Trust; and Learning to Rise. The foundational skill set is vulnerability which we will cover next time in Part 3.

While building these skills, we also need to support each other to challenge our hardwiring that prioritises our primitive survival over cold hard facts. Research and my own experience would suggest that the human mind works in ways that often amplify the perceived threat. Witness the way we read something sinister in a benign text message. I once replied to a colleague ‘Thanks’, to which they replied “Well you don’t have to get angry!” As far as I can tell (happy to be corrected), the acronym False Evidence Appearing Real (FEAR) came from Ed and Deb Shapiro’s book, ‘The Way Ahead’. One of the ‘rumble starters’ in Dare to Lead is ‘The story I make up….’. 

On our journey to becoming more effective, braver leaders, we need to constantly examine our view of the world versus reality. We can only do that by engaging (rumbling) with tough issues, have the right types of conversations, and take accountability for the outcomes of our actions.

Find out more about our Dare to Lead™ program here.