When you hear the term “leadership expert,” you probably picture someone with an artificially large smile pacing around on a stage while dropping phrases like “synergy” and “There’s no I in team.” But this is decidedly not the case with Brené Brown, a born-and-raised Texan with a warm smile and a fiery wit. Although Brown’s latest book, Dare to Lead, has spent 33 weeks at the number one spot on the New York Times’ Bestseller list in the business category, she’s far from a corporate type.
A research professor at the University of Houston, Brown has spent much of her career studying shame, guilt, empathy, vulnerability, courage and how they affect the way we show up in our daily lives, and most recently, how they affect leadership. But it’s not just her research that people can’t get enough of — it’s her radical candor and powerful storytelling. Whether you’re watching her in person, in her viral Ted Talk or in her latest Netflix special, Brown exudes authenticity in a way that’s both relatable and riveting. She’s not afraid to share personal stories about her family and her journey of sobriety, and she certainly doesn’t pull any punches.
“Our lack of self-awareness and ability to be in pain constructively is directly proportional to the amount of pain we cause in the world. But if you can’t be brave, you can’t lead. And you can’t be brave if you’re tapping out of hard conversations about painful, hard topics,” Brown says. “That’s what it means to lead. That’s why there are so few courageous leaders.”
In the first episode of Glassdoor’s podcast, IN PURSUIT, Editorial Director Amy Elisa Jackson catches up with Brown to learn more about the connection between bravery and pain, overcoming addiction in all its forms and her childhood dream of being a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader — here are a few highlights.
Amy Elisa Jackson: You had quite a banner year, Brené. Your Netflix special launching your Daring Classrooms curriculum debuted, and your 2018 book Dare to Lead is still the number one best-selling business book. Does it feel like all your hard work has finally paid off or does it feel like, “Holy crap, is this really me?”
Brené Brown: I live in a constant state of “Holy crap.” It’s weird — on the one hand, I can’t believe it. And then on the other hand, my team just busts their asses constantly. We work so hard that I can understand how it happened, but it’s still really humbling.
Amy Elisa Jackson: It’s good that you recognize that it’s a part of your, and your team’s, hard work. As women, sometimes it’s so easy to say, “I don’t know how I got here. I’m so surprised!”
Brené Brown: Yeah, I know. I got none of that. I know every painstaking step. It’s so funny because people in interviews will say, “Let’s talk about your meteoric rise.” And I’m like, “Oh, this is year 22 for me.” That’s a slow-ass meteor. We work really hard. We believe deeply in what we do, but I guess there’s a part of me, too, that thinks there are a lot of other people that work this hard, and so there’s a part of it that’s just being in the right place at the right time, or the right conversation at the right time.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Dare to Lead and Daring Greatly are two of my absolute go-to books. I feel like both of them are really playbooks for anyone who wants to step up and be brave and bust out of your box. Talk to me a little bit about your research and what you found were the biggest barriers to becoming a leader.
Brené Brown: After studying these big emotions — shame, guilt, empathy, vulnerability, courage — I really wanted to understand how those connected with leadership, because I found myself spending probably 90 percent of my time in organizations talking to leaders and teams. So it was a seven-year study looking very specifically at what’s the future of leadership. I was not surprised to hear that it’s courage — this is from special forces in the military to creatives in California doing animation. It’s the same answer. We need to have braver leaders and more courageous cultures.
The thing that took me by surprise was that I thought the biggest barrier to courage was fear. But in interviewing all of these folks who I thought were such brave leaders, they said, “I’m afraid every day. I’m afraid all day long.” It’s not fear that gets in the way of courageous leadership, it’s armor. It’s how we self-protect. And so as a recovering armored person, that was both hopeful and hard to hear, because I like my armor.
Amy Elisa Jackson: How has taking off your own armor impacted the way you lead?
Brené Brown: When I first started doing the leadership work, I got super buttoned-up and I stopped writing about personal things on my blog. I thought, “You know what, if I’m going to go into this lane, then I need to be leader-y.” Yet at the same time, I’m telling people to be more human — I’m the poster person for squishy, vulnerable humanity. But I came to this place where I said, “I’m going to talk about leadership and I’m going to write about my sobriety. And I’m going to talk about being a mom. And I’m going to talk about race. And I’m going to talk about politics. I’m going to be all of me. I’m not going to compartmentalize myself as I talk to other people about the dangers of compartmentalizing.” Writing Dare to Lead was very cathartic for me in that way.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Your blog post about sobriety was really what opened my eyes and made me respect you. A lot of people can write books, but there’s something about putting your full self out there in front of everybody. How was your sobriety affected your leadership? What pieces of that show up every day in your life as you navigate being Brené Brown?
Brené Brown: I can’t separate anything powerful or good in my life from my sobriety. I attribute everything that is good and right and true about my life to that, whether it’s being able to look at my kids — I’ve got a daughter who’s 20 now and a son who’s 14 — and be proud of the way that I’m raising them to holding onto a marriage. My husband and I had zero model of what a successful marriage looked like. Our parents are divorced, remarried, divorced, remarried. I guess at the bottom of everything that I feel proud about or good about is my willingness to show up and keep showing up when it got hard, hard, hard. And that is because of my sobriety. That’s because I have just built a practice of not tapping out with beer, with taking care of other people, with numbing. I still have to fight it a lot. I was a partier for sure. I did a genogram in my last assignment at my master’s in social work where you did a family history and there was just a ton of alcoholism. So I decided to fully abstain right there.
Amy Elisa Jackson: How do you moderate the addiction to work? Because you can’t abstain from it, unless you’re just a billionaire chilling in the Bahamas in silk pajamas.
Brené Brown: I found myself in a lake in Austin floating on a raft this summer, and I caught myself thinking, “How much more do I have to do to rest?” I thought, “Oh my God, is that the craziest bullshit I’ve ever said out loud to myself?” The thing for me is that even if I had the billion dollars and the silk pajamas and the Bahamas, I would want to work. I love work.
For me, finding balance is a daily discipline. I have to sleep eight to nine hours a night. I have to work out four to five times a week, and I have to have healthy food, which means I have to do some cooking. When work starts eating those things up, and I go three or four months without working out because I’m too busy, or I don’t have time to cook, or I’m not sleeping very much, then I know it’s gone too far.
I think everybody has to figure out what their sobriety looks like. If you think, “Man, is this an issue? Should I think about stopping?” Then the answer is probably yes. And just because you can stop for 15 days doesn’t really mean anything.
Amy Elisa Jackson: The journey of sobriety is something that millions of Americans deal with. How are you working your program these days? Because people might look at you and say, “Oh, she’s cured. 23 years, she’s fine, she’s got this.”
Brené Brown: Not drinking was the easier part. Doing these fearless inventories of who I am, how I tap out of pain, how I cause other people pain because I’m not willing to be clear since I don’t want to be disliked or disappoint people… That was the real work, and that’s everyday work for me.
I’m going to make a big leap here. Can I do that?
Amy Elisa Jackson: Yeah! Leap. Jump, sis.
Brené Brown: I’ve thought a lot about Toni Morrison since her death. I thought about her fearless accounting of the history and heart story of the black experience. I think about what’s going on in the world today when we talk about white supremacy. There just comes a point where you come across something that’s really hard, like what just happened in El Paso and Ohio, and you hear people saying, “Wow, we’ve got a white supremacy problem.” Or, “Wow, there’s a real dehumanization of people of color or women.” And there comes this tiny, tiny point where you have to decide as a person: “Do I accept what I’m hearing and the pain that comes with it? Or do I just say it’s not real, and diminish the truth of it?” When you get to that point, do you have the capacity and the courage to hold the pain, own the story and fight your way through it?
Somehow, as a collection of people, we’ve lost our capacity and our courage to hold the pain, and so we deny it. Whether we deny it around race, around gender, around transphobia, around homophobia, around a hard meeting. Our lack of self-awareness and ability to be in pain, constructively, is directly proportional to the amount of pain we cause in the world. But if you can’t be brave, you can’t lead. And you can’t be brave if you’re tapping out of hard conversations about painful, hard topics. That’s what it means to lead. That’s why there are so few courageous leaders. Coming back to Dare to Lead, that’s why brave leaders are never silent about hard things. You either own the story or, as you can see in organizations and our country today, the story owns you.
Amy Elisa Jackson: You mentioned earlier in our conversation how you don’t shy away from social justice topics. When the Twitter trolls abound, do you remind yourself that you are leading and being brave? Or do you just say, “F*#@ it. I don’t care what the naysayers say.”
Brené Brown: I try to say “F*#@ it,” but it doesn’t work because I’m usually in tears, so that’s not very convincing. I think I take my inspiration from people who are a hell of a lot braver than me, because I have a lot of privilege in a lot of dimensions. When I sign up to take on race, or even gender, I’m really privileged from both perspectives. Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m a straight woman, and I’m an educated straight woman. I have a whole list. So I really am inspired by people who are much braver than me, and I try to follow their lead, support them, yield to them.
Amy Elisa Jackson: When you look at your career, what’s been your best detour?
Brené Brown: I’ve only had two aspirations growing up. I’m a fifth-generation Texan — I wanted to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader married to a quarterback, or I wanted to drive an eighteen-wheeler and have my own CB like “Breaker 1-9. This is Brené Brown.” That’s your ambition when you’re a girl growing up in Texas, at least it was 40 years ago. So I’ve had nothing but detours. I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree when I was 29, and if there’s one mantra that I live by, it’s “nothing wasted.” I learned more about empathy and people in that 12-year journey of bartending and waiting tables and hitchhiking through Europe than I ever could in classrooms. I live in beta — I think pivoting is the norm. Steady is not.
My team and I have been in a big pivot for a year where we thought we would produce this great research and then scale it, but I hated that. I don’t want to walk in and have 150 people working here — 25 or so is my sweet spot. So what we decided to do is continue creating world-class research and IP and then partner with people who scale for a living, like the Netflixes and Random House, because that’s what they do well. I’m better, slower, closer.
Amy Elisa Jackson: Brené, we’re approaching a new decade — it’s 2020 in just a few months. You’ve hit some major career milestones. You’ve sent a kid off to college. You’re living your best life. What are you in pursuit of for 2020?
Brené Brown: Discernment. It’s my version of the serenity prayer: “Give me the courage to change the things I can, and then grant me the wisdom to discern the difference between what I should take on and what I should not take on.”
Amy Elisa Jackson: That’s powerful. More isn’t always better — sometimes more is just more.
Brené Brown: My word of the year this past year was “focused,” and it was Steve Job’s definition where focus is not just about the things you do — it’s being proud of the thousand things you turned down and don’t do as well.