A quote from Brené Brown reading "Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things"

The Ham Foldover Debacle, in Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, could be a template for every single absurd argument I’ve ever had with my partner Jon. Across five pages, Brené eerily narrates what could so easily be my own internal dialogue in any given stressful situation. Eerie, until you realise how common a reaction to anxiety and stress this kind of play out can be. Reading it made me laugh so hard I cried.

Brené’s book had such a profound effect on me that her message became the main focus of my first ever Toastmasters speech. The speech was only seven minutes long, though I could have waxed lyrical about the book for hours because it has changed my life. Here are a few thoughts that I couldn’t fit into my icebreaker, the ones that slapped me across the face with realisation as I read them (hereby called The Brené Effect).

The Brené Effect

Rumbling with vulnerability

About a year ago, I moved into the tech industry; a world so alien from the academic publishing one I had left behind that it was hard to comprehend at first. The pace was different. “Move fast and break things” seemed completely at odds with my prior experience in a global, FTSE-indexed, 200-year-old corporation. The second difference was the online-by-default nature of business. There was no traditional ‘software as a printed medium’ legacy anchoring my new company to its roots. Everything was digital-first: far-reaching, instant, globally visible. Oh boy, does that make you vulnerable.

I learned very quickly to label everything I was working on in shared workspaces as “WORK IN PROGRESS”, as a sort of defence shield in case it leaked somewhere and was taken as my best effort. Messy, imperfect and incomplete was not how I had ever delivered my work up to now and letting everyone see the cogs whirring inside my brain felt uncomfortably personal at first.

“WORK IN PROGRESS” was my plea. Reading between the lines it said, “PLEASE DON’T JUDGE ME YET”.

The workings of this strange new world were something that I would quickly need to adapt to. I think Brené’s advice below applies to all forms of critique, even the kind that comes with the best and most pragmatic intentions:

Don’t grab hurtful comments and pull them close to you by rereading them and ruminating on them. Don’t play with them by rehearsing your badass comeback.

The second part of the advice made me laugh, as I pictured the countless times I had driven home from work or a personal event, in the past, where something had baited me. Clenching the steering wheel; internally drafting a monologue of scathing retort, counter-arguments, and razor-sharp wit. I would write a letter when I got home – I planned – and send it off to the offender, declaring my triumph over the situation as I licked the stamp. (Not one letter was ever sent, obviously…)

Daring to Lead showed me that my irate monologues are a survival tactic developed to avoid having to process the more uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability. If I push the blame onto others then I’m absolved and have nothing to feel guilty or shameful about. The funny thing about that? Yep, you guessed it, it’s a very common human reaction. (One of six common offloading strategies actually, see pages 252-255 of the book)

Perspective-taking is an important part of growth, particularly now as I lead a team of nearly ten. My new mantra quoted directly from Brené is helping to stop the internal monologue in its tracks both at work and in my personal life:

When I’m ready to respond rather than react emotionally, I first ask myself if I’m the problem.

Living into my values

In reading Dare to Lead I defined my two core values: Authenticity and Making a Difference. Making a difference is easier to understand at first glance – any action that improves processes, people, or the world – but how do I define authenticity? For me, it’s learning when to speak and when to let it go.

Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; it’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy; and it’s practicing your values not just professing them.

Since I read the book I’ve made a conscious effort to have difficult conversations. More often than not these difficult conversations have proved the most authentic and the most fruitful, and I’ve only ever regretted the way I have approached them (due to lack of courage), never what was actually said. For me, authenticity means becoming more vocal, more quickly, about the things that I think need discussing, even when that is far more uncomfortable than staying silent.

To avoid being seen as a kind of permanently distressed foghorn, though, I’m learning to keep my opinions to myself in discussions where I don’t feel I can add value, making space for those who do and trusting that a more open, vulnerable culture will empower them to speak up.

As a leader, it’s also about admitting “I’m not entirely sure, what do you think?” more often, and I’m working on that.

Shaky first drafts

A shaky first draft (SFD) is the story you tell yourself when you are responding to a situation that hasn’t gone the way you expected it to. You project your internal reasoning and assumptions onto a narrative that is often wildly different from reality. Brené cleverly illustrates in the book how explosive these SFDs can be.

Recently (and it happens frequently, but for this post, we’ll pick one example) I experienced my own Ham Foldover Debacle, which could be, less creatively, entitled: “Why I cried because we didn’t have time to go to IKEA”.

I’m a very busy person and I frequently overcommit myself. I don’t wear that as a badge of honour, and I’ve recently learned that I need to make more time for me, but it helps to set the context of the scene. What is probably immediately apparent, even without reading the book, is that it was never about IKEA. It’s NEVER about IKEA.

It was the week before Christmas. Missing the alarm clock, we left the house later than planned to go and visit the family. Narrowly avoiding a closed motorway, we were diverted with the rest of the population of Britain (or so it seemed) onto country roads, which added two hours on to our journey. Due to this delay, we didn’t have time to squeeze in the quick trip around IKEA en route to “just get a few storage boxes, won’t take long”. The disruption to our – in hindsight overpacked, and always destined to fail, agenda – triggered a grown-up tantrum of such an explosive nature that it took me a full twenty minutes to calm down. What my poor, baffled fiancé didn’t understand was that I was feeling overwhelmed by pressure set by my own high standards, guilt at not having as much spare time as I did in the past to spend with family, and shame around the chaos that permanently drew our life together into its vortex.

The six plastic storage boxes and two coat hooks from IKEA – I reasoned in my shaky first draft- were going to bring order to the chaos, and by extension absolve me of the guilt at not having my life “together”. When the plan failed, the tightly held reins keeping everything together broke loose and my partner naively suggesting “let’s just go on the way back” was the fuse to my ticking time bomb of emotion.

Like Brené, I’m an overfunctioner:

Overfunctioners, like myself, tend to move quickly to advise, rescue, take over, micromanage, and get in other people’s business rather than look inward.[…] For those of us who over function, our work is to become more willing to embrace our vulnerabilities in the face of anxiety.

I can see this glaringly now in my management style, and increasingly often in my personal life too. I find solutions in my head to problems in my head, never communicating them out loud and never thinking for one second that I could delegate to someone. I’m actively working on this in a professional setting, and have been for a few months, but in my personal life?

Once I had regained composure in the car, I took a deep breath and shared my Shaky First Draft out loud. On Brené’s advice, I vocalised the overwhelm and feeling that I can’t share the burden, the guilt and the shame. I felt immediate relief as it all unravelled from the knot inside my head and he told me I should have mentioned it sooner and he could have helped out.

And we did end up going to IKEA on the way back…

Asking for help is a power move. It’s a sign of strength to ask and a sign of strength to fight off judgement when other people raise their hands. It reflects a self-awareness that is an essential element in braving trust.

Thanks to Brené and her work, I’m more conscious than ever of the power of vulnerability in leadership and life. I’m aware of my own tendencies and can notice patterns of defensive behaviour in others, which helps me to understand their reactions and respond in a disarming way. I know what I need to work on, and I’ve identified my two core values to help guide the direction.

I’m not a big re-reader of books, but I’ve already referred back to Dare to Lead on multiple occasions since I first devoured it cover to cover. I would urge anyone – leader or not – to give it a read and consider the power that vulnerability might have on your workplace and your personal life.

Thank you Brené.