Brené Brown on the Obstacle to Courageous Leadership—and the Hack that Changed Her Life

2019 Keynote Speaker Brené BrownThe number one obstacle to courageous leadership is not what Brené Brown thought it was when she began studying the topic seven years ago.

“I thought it was fear,” Brown said at the 2019 Watermark Conference for Women. But “it’s not fear that gets in the way of us being brave. It’s armor. It’s what we do when we are afraid. We self-protect, close our hearts completely off and engage in behaviors that move us away from courage: perfectionism, cynicism, having to be the knower instead of the learner.”

As a result, we struggle with having hard conversations. In fact, some leaders say that their cultures are “too nice” to have hard conversations, explaining that they just talk about people instead. And that, quipped Brown, doesn’t seem nice or kind.

One of the biggest reasons we need to have tough conversation, she continued, is to address diversity, equity and inclusivity. Everyone is afraid to have these conversations because they don’t want to make a mistake or be perceived as racist, sexist or homophobic.

But the reality is you will make mistakes. And “the whiter, straighter and more Christian you are, the more you are going to get schooled in your blind spots,” she said. “But to not have those conversations because you are uncomfortable is the definition of privilege.”

To have effective conversations, you need to be willing to be vulnerable, and be a learner.

“Courageous leaders are never silent around hard things. Your job as a leader is to excavate the unsaid—to bring into words and language what’s happening but not being named,” she said. 

The hack that changed Brown’s life

“It’s a sentence,” Brown explained. “The sentence is, ‘The story I’m telling myself.’ This sentence has floated around in my research for probably 15 years. When I was researching resilience and courage, every single research participant who had the highest level of bounce and ability to reset after hard things used some version of this sentence.”

The reason this hack works, she explained, is that it reminds us of what our brains do when something hard happens, which is make up a story.

“You can take this to the bank,” she continued. “In the absence of data, we make up stories.” For example, when you are in the middle of a difficult text message exchange and you see three dots and then see them go away, what do you think is happening?

In the end, Brown said, there’s only one story you need to know:

“You are more courageous than you think. You are for sure more powerful, we are all more powerful, than we believe. And sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves confirm the fears that keep us from being brave and modeling courageous to the people around us.

“So, stay brave. Be badass. And check the shitty first draft [stories you tell yourself] always.”  

Watch select clips from keynotes and listen to all the breakout sessions here.


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