When Courage equals Vulnerability — Brené Brown

Brené Brown keynoted at the WorkHuman Conference in Austin, Texas, last week and I was lucky enough to be there to listen to her keynote. She is such a warm, friendly human being — I loved her!

Brené Brown bills herself as a researcher, story teller and Texan. She is actually much more than just that of course, holding the position of research professor at the University of Houston for the Huffington Endowed Chair and is a multiple New York Times bestseller.

As befitted a local gal, the audience’s reaction was very positive but she soon had us all getting into the groove — the vulnerability groove.

First, she made us stand and laugh at each other. Then she switched to singing — American Pie — with one brave delegate launching in an unbidden solo second verse. Next up was dancing resulting in a motley display of arms in the air as people embraced the challenge. The final one was getting naked but propriety stopped that challenge — we all laughed and made to sit down but she had one more request for us.

‘Strike a cool pose,’ she asked us and we all assumed the position — some with more bravado than others. She even brought some volunteers on stage. ‘How can you ask anyone for help if they look like that,’ she explained.

“Leaders must display vulnerability not coolness,” she argued. ‘Acting cool is the neurological equivalent of wearing a straight jacket. Take your hands out of your pockets, unfold your arms and be brave.”

Brown has written and researched courage and bravery over the past 17 years. It can be taught she explained. In her work she has observed and measured courage. She has worked with Army Seals, soldiers, leaders and the one thing she has learnt that bravery cannot be present without vulnerability.

“We have been taught wrong,” she said. “Being brave is not about being cool, being tough — it is about being vulnerable.”

The word courage she reminds us comes from the Latin, Coeur meaning heart. Being courageous means sharing who you are with all.

Brown classified bravery as having four key elements, the first being vulnerability, closely followed by clarity of value, trust and rising skills.

“If you are brave — and vulnerable — you will fail without doubt, but you will also rise again,” she said. “Where the teaching comes in is with the last element — rising skills — but you need to be taught how to rise when you feel strong not when you are in the gutter.”

Translating this into a work environment, Brown highlights the often corralled creative teams. “When I speak with high power creatives, often there is no room for them to fail. They cannot be vulnerable and guess what? their productivity gets jammed.

“For teams to be successful they need to be able to be vulnerable, to fail, otherwise they will not deliver excellence — just cruise in the safe zone.”

Blame is another hot button for Brown. Blame is defined as the discharging of comfort. She cited a funny anecdote about her personal life. Her husband returned home later than usual one night, resulting in her getting to sleep after her normal time. The following morning she had to resort to two cups of coffee to become awake and when she dropped the second cup she blamed her husband. We all laughed.

As leaders in our workplaces, she advocated that blame be recognised for what it was. Accountability is one thing, blame quite another and not to be confused.

Brown closed with a strong call for increased vulnerability in our personal lives and in our workplaces. “It is a myth that vulnerability can be equated to weakness. It is the opposite, if you turn up when you do not know the outcome, that is brave and that is the epitome of vulnerable,” she said.