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Vulnerability and Leadership

Vulnerability and Leadership

Michael Krauss

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

A new book from Brené Brown suggests vulnerability is at the core of daring leadership

Are leaders allowed to show vulnerability and weakness? Or is it best to always present an armored posture on behalf of the enterprise?

In her latest book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., author Brené Brown suggests the key to successful leadership is a willingness to share vulnerability, which builds trust while letting us lead during disruptive and challenging times. From digital technology disruption to globalization and geopolitical disruption, leadership isn’t getting any easier.

With that as context, Brown asks, “What, if anything, about the way people are leading today needs to change in order for our leaders to be successful in a complex, rapidly changing environment where we’re faced with seemingly intractable challenges and an insatiable demand for innovation?”


Brown’s answer is powerful: “We need braver leaders and more courageous cultures.”

The book’s thesis emanates in part from the perspective of Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

In Dare to Lead, Brown articulates this challenge in today’s marketplace and provides a well-defined roadmap for what individuals can do to become braver leaders in disruptive times.

Brown’s book isn’t only for executives. Brown defines a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” At some point of our lives or another, that is a role each of us undertakes.

Brown establishes three principles that are at the core of daring leadership:

1. You can’t access your courage without rumbling with your vulnerability.
2. Self-awareness and self-love matter; who we are is how we lead.
3. Courage is contagious. To scale daring leadership and build courage in teams and organizations, we have to cultivate a culture in which brave work, tough conversations and whole hearts are the expectations, a culture where armor is not necessary or rewarded.

Reading Dare to Lead, I was reminded of my training in brand management and an encounter I had when I was CMO of a publicly traded technology company.

The rules I was taught as the CMO and chief brand officer were simple and highly armored: Keep on message, keep your CEO focused, keep the armor up, never show weakness, repeat the core message at least three times, don’t digress and—certainly—don’t appear vulnerable. Yet my CEO was more effective when he broke the rules and demonstrated vulnerability and spoke candidly.

On one occasion, he opened an on-the-record interview with a leading technology writer by divulging he’d been fired from a previous job and what he’d learned from the experience. While I bit my tongue and wondered, “Why did he go there?” his candor built trust with the reporter and led to a long-term editorial relationship and very positive media coverage.

My CEO was a daring leader who was willing to engage on human terms. He knew he wasn’t perfect and he assumed a world of abundance. He always sought to learn, was kind and was willing to take risks.

Brown’s book is full of examples comparing daring leadership with more traditional armored (or defensive) leadership. A few examples from her book include these armored leadership approaches compared with daring leadership examples:

  • Driving perfectionism and fostering fear of failure vs. modeling and encouraging healthy striving, empathy and self-compassion.
  • Working from scarcity and squandering opportunities for joy and recognition vs. practicing gratitude and celebrating milestones and victories.
  • Propagating the false dichotomy of victim or viking, crush or be crushed vs. practicing integration—strong back, soft front, wild heart.
  • Being a knower and being right vs. being a learner and getting it right.
  • Hiding behind cynicism vs. modeling clarity, kindness and hope.
  • Using criticism as self-protection vs. making contributions and taking risks.

Brown takes a research-based and scientific approach in writing Dare to Lead. She offers customized frameworks, lists and tools that emerging, established and even faltering leaders can  immediately employ. 

There is an important discussion of psychological concepts, such as shame and how shame can get in the way and impede leadership. There’s a wonderful examination of our human nature and how we often imagine the worst-case scenarios when stressed, along with the damage it can do to our ability to lead. These illustrations are powerful and insightful and make Dare to Lead a more effective book. Building on leadership lessons throughout history, Brown provides her own guidance to advance the field of leadership in a way that is relevant, contemporary and accessible.

As you read Dare to Lead, you will find many common-sense points that you can immediately put into practice.

If you’re the type of CMO I once was, who thought that my CEO shouldn’t show vulnerability, you may start to question some of the old rules of armored leadership.

About the Author | Michael Krauss

Michael Krauss is president of Market Strategy Group based in Chicago.

Michael Krauss is president of Market Strategy Group based in Chicago.