What does It Mean to Dare to Lead?
The Fantasy of Leadership
Talking about ‘brave leadership’ sounds awkward and feels a little elusive.
While I have not personally seen a job description that says the incumbent should be brave per se, most position descriptions are weighed down by a long list of angelic sounding qualities such as able to demonstrate an ability to challenge the status quo, lead change effectively, deliver business results; drive innovation; and build strong relationships with stakeholders, among others.
Oh, and by the way, while doing this you also need to ensure that you are authentic, values-driven, emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and self-aware. Basically, leaders need to be awesome, almost faultless humans. This is the fallacy of leadership.
“Basically, leaders need to be awesome, almost faultless humans. This is the fallacy of leadership.”
We know however that we are not faultless, in fact, we are fundamentally flawed. This is not a criticism, just a reality. Its what makes us all so different and special. We carry with us our parents’ DNA with all its wonder and challenges, our experiences, fears, feelings, shame, values, ambitions and vulnerabilities. Is it any wonder that – in the moment – we may struggle to respond in a constructive way to a bewildering number of scenarios that might challenge our sense of self. And therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that every one of us learn a multitude of ways to protect ourselves – at least that’s the assumption.
The irony is that what seek in our leaders – a long litany of qualities, skills and experiences – requires bravery. Not the hair-raising, clenched fist, seat-of-your-pants warrior energy, but the type of bravery that puts us out on a limb. It’s the kind of bravery where we will feel vulnerable – at risk, exposed, and uncertain.
Real Leadership is Risky
In my book, Leadership Without Silver Bullets, I wrote that leadership is risky. And while there are many languages and cultures with an interpretation for the actual word ‘leadership’, I have a favourite: the Indo-European root of the word leadership is leith, which means to go forth, to cross a threshold, or to die (Gerzon, 2003).
Vulnerability and risk come with the job, or at least should if we’re exercising real leadership and not what Dean Williams calls counterfeit leadership. This is the kind of leadership that looks like we’re leading but in fact, our actions and behaviours are benign at best or destructive at their worst. Leadership without ‘daring’ smacks of leadership that is, well, not leadership. It is anything other than leadership. We could provide a generous interpretation of leadership that is not ‘daring’ and call it management. But even that would be doing a disservice to the important function of management. Leadership without ‘daring’ is managing the status-quo, polishing the china if you will.
The Heart of Daring to Lead
Brené Brown has spent two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy. By her own admission – Brené has said that she spends 10 x more time studying what gets in the way, rather than ‘the way’ (our aspirational leadership behaviours). For example, Brené set out to study connection and empathy and ended up studying shame, and she set out to study courage and ended up studying vulnerability.
The book Dare to Lead is based on 7 years of research, starting with one key question:
A strong theme emerged in the research – we need braver leaders and more courageous cultures. However interviewees struggled to identify specific behaviours, rather, they could describe behaviours that get in the way, including avoiding tough conversations; low trust; not acknowledging fears and feelings; getting stuck when we fail or fall; perfectionism; and too much shame and blame in organisations.
Four Skill Sets emerged from the research:
- Rumbling with Vulnerability
- Living into Our Values
- BRAVING Trust
- Learning to Rise
In this series, we will examine what it means to ‘Dare to Lead’. The series will provide a narrative that aims to draw together the threads around the why, the what and the how. Far from being a rehash of Brené Brown’s work, it will be a narrative as I see it, both as someone who has spent a large proportion of my career as a leadership and team development specialist – as well as a Certified Dare to Lead Facilitator. We will also be taking a deeper dive on each of the four skill sets, again, from the lens of a practitioner (not that Brené Brown is not).
So, Why Dare to Lead?
The principles of daring to lead speak directly to who we are, and who we are matters enormously in how we lead. Leaders are never quiet about things that matter. They have difficult conversations, they attend to people’s fears and feelings, and they continuously build trust with and through people. They are connected to their values and encourage others to live their values. They ‘dig in’, meaning that they take action or say what they think needs to be said in a thoughtful way, despite the perceived risks or outcomes. These leaders create real change because they understand people and systems. Those who continue to work on themselves, who continue to rumble with vulnerability, and continue to practice the skills of daring leadership will be those best placed to lead effectively in an increasingly complex world.
Those who occupy important positions of power in government, our institutions and organisations are those who must dare to lead. The consequences of not doing so are dramatic, costly and come with a huge human toll.
Find out more about our Dare to Lead™ Program.