Many work cultures are characterized by self-interested and self-protecting behaviors such as unmitigated criticism, avoidance of tough conversations, perfectionism, and the refusal to take risks. These behaviors stifle a work culture’s creativity and learning, and they’re toxic to the potential for innovation. The fear of failure and shame in uncertain situations causes team members to keep new ideas to themselves and avoid taking risks, which will hold your organization back in our world that constantly demands more creativity and innovation.
The antidote to these stifled work cultures is brave leadership. Brave leaders approach fear and uncertainty head-on, and they teach their teams how to do the same. You can become a brave leader by practicing four courage-building skills: facing vulnerability, choosing and practicing values, building trust, and developing failure resilience.
Vulnerability is exposure to the risk of failure or emotional harm—facing vulnerability, the first skill of brave leadership, is meeting this exposure head-on and learning to master your response to the fear and uncertainty that come along with it. Mastering your response to vulnerability is vital when building an innovative, creative work culture because it’s impossible to have innovation and creation without failure and risk—in these cultures, choosing to avoid your vulnerability will result in defensive, self-interested behaviors catching up with you and holding you back.
Many people avoid vulnerability because they don’t quite understand what it really is—it’s important to clear up a few misconceptions about vulnerability before diving into the work of engaging with it.
Misconception #1: Vulnerability is weakness. People often refuse to acknowledge their vulnerable feelings, thinking doing so is brave. In fact, it signals that they’re not brave enough to engage with their vulnerability. If you’re feeling vulnerable, it’s because you were courageous enough to approach, not avoid, exposure to risk and uncertainty.
Misconception #2: You have to trust someone in order to be vulnerable with them. Neither comes before the other: vulnerability and trust happen in a constant exchange of small moments. When someone reaches out to you and you choose to engage with and respond to their vulnerability (instead of ignoring it), you earn their trust and the right to be vulnerable with them in turn.
Misconception #3: Vulnerability means full disclosure. You don’t need to spill everything to be vulnerable—leaders practice vulnerability with boundaries and don’t overshare personal feelings or information with their team. Instead, they talk openly about the emotions surrounding uncertain or risky situations, like a new product launch or large systemic changes. Then, they ask for their team members’ questions or concerns, and they take the time to listen and engage—creating a safe space for their team members to sort through their feelings.
If you’re able to allow and productively engage with vulnerability in your work—and teach your team members the value of doing so—you’ll reap a number of benefits: honesty in tough conversations; fewer defensive behaviors; and the ability to understand and overcome feelings of shame.
Leadership comes with tough conversations that have uncertain outcomes, or demand emotional exposure from either party. Vulnerability allows you to approach these conversations with the courage to be honest and a guiding principle: it’s kind to be clear, and it’s unkind to be unclear. Not saying what you mean in these conversations prevents honest and productive connections—nevertheless, it’s tempting to default to unclear language, because it offers protection in several ways.
Firstly, people often choose to be polite rather than honest, telling themselves this is the nice thing to do—but it’s just a way to avoid vulnerability. Honesty in the conversation might stir up discomfort or negative emotions, so you choose the predictable outcome of a polite half-truth. This behavior is especially damaging in feedback sessions. Polite, dishonest feedback is unfair—the recipient receives no indication that they need to improve, yet they’re held accountable for their lack of improvement.
Secondly, people often avoid talking about their true emotions, instead naming “easy” but inaccurate emotions—this allows them to talk about their feelings without full emotional exposure. This may be easier and more comfortable, but you can’t connect to or solve the root of people’s emotions if you don’t know what they are. In conversations about difficult emotions, you need to focus on clarity of language, which helps you best serve and connect with your team members.
A great example of pinpointing true emotions is Dede Halfhill of the Air Force. She found that her airmen were frequently complaining about being “tired.” She suggested that what they were truly feeling was loneliness, and they realized that this pinpointed their emotions exactly. Knowing this, she was able to better respond to their needs and focus on connection and inclusivity instead of giving leave, which further isolated them.
Some organizations try to remove vulnerability and emotions from their work culture to make team members more efficient and less susceptible to emotion. However, this usually has the opposite effect. Refusing to face vulnerability allows your ego to react directly to failure or risk, resulting in defensive, ego-protecting behaviors such as:
Brave leaders combat these behaviors by creating work cultures where team members are comfortable facing vulnerability and understand that risk and failure are tolerated and useful. There are three steps that leaders can take to diminish the defensive behaviors of their teams:
The goal of defensive behaviors is usually to avoid the particularly painful emotion of shame—the feeling that something you’ve done (or not done), a goal you haven’t achieved, or an ideal you didn’t measure up to makes you a flawed person who’s not worthy of connection or belonging.
However, it’s possible to overcome shame in a healthy way, without resorting to defensive behaviors. Shame loses its power when it’s discussed and met with empathy and support. Empathy is critical in innovative cultures because people are more willing to take risks if they know that they will be supported if they struggle or fail.
When meeting your team members’ shame with empathy, it’s important to understand that empathy is not simply making things better. Rather, it's a connection with the emotions tied to someone’s struggle or failure. To practice effective empathy, focus on being nonjudgmental, understanding the emotions of the other person, and opening up the opportunity to talk about the feelings surrounding the experience. For example, after a team member has a tough presentation, you can respond with empathy by saying, “I’m really sorry for how that presentation went. I know it can be embarrassing. Do you want to talk about it?”
As a leader, you can combat behavior-driving shame in the workplace by talking to your team members through their struggles and failures, and encouraging them to express their emotions. Not only will this demonstrate to team members how they can practice empathy among themselves, but team members will also feel more comfortable taking risks knowing that you, and their colleagues, have their back.
The second skill of brave leadership is choosing and practicing your values. Having clear values and putting them into practice is essential to your team’s ability to make tough decisions and take risks—strong values push you to do what is right, rather than what is easy.
Your organization should have no more than two core values—if you have too many values, they become meaningless feel-good words that are too nebulous to be actionable. Imagine: “At X Corporation, we care about quality, collaboration, sustainability, knowledge, balance, and community.” These are all worthy values, but there are so many, it’s hard to know which one should be driving behaviors and major decisions. Your organization should have two evident values that team members can depend on when it comes to tough decisions.
To firmly establish these values in your organization, translate them into behaviors that can be taught, practiced, and evaluated. These behaviors provide clear guidelines of how you expect your team members to work together, make decisions, and show up to their work. Take the X Corporation example from above—let’s say that they decide on balance and knowledge as their two core values. Their balance value might translate into a “no work emails on the weekend” policy, and their knowledge value might translate to an expectation that everyone comes to the weekly marketing meeting with a question or a new tool or skill to share.
Strong values are especially important to giving and receiving feedback—a vulnerable process that often prompts defensive behaviors. While giving feedback, focusing on your values can help you approach the conversation in alignment with them. For example, having the core value of courage can push you to be honest and respectful, rather than dishonest and polite, while your core value of teamwork pushes you to work together with your feedback recipient to come up with solutions.
While receiving feedback, focusing on your values can help you channel your emotions productively, toward insight and learning, rather than defensively. You can do this by entering the conversation with a value-supporting mantra or behavior, such as “I have the courage to at least sit here and listen” (courage), “Paying attention will make me a better teammate” (teamwork), or “I will ask questions and fully understand” (curiosity).
When faced with vulnerable moments or tough decisions, brave leaders depend on “grounded confidence”—confidence rooted in strong values, self-awareness, and curiosity—for the courage to face their vulnerability instead of hiding behind defensive behaviors. There are two components to developing grounded confidence.
The first component is continually practicing your values and self-awareness. This ensures that you will respond to pressure or tough...
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We’re living in a rapidly-changing world that demands constant innovation and creativity from organizations. But there are four errors that organization leaders make that get in the way of creativity and innovation.
By refusing to allow the risks and uncertainty in their workplaces, leaders create work cultures where team members don’t know how to control their natural emotional reactions to uncertainty and failure. Instead, their team members are driven by their emotions toward defensive behaviors that hold them back, such as perfectionism, criticism, and a refusal to take responsibility for their mistakes.
Furthermore, many leaders use unclear or untrue language in tough conversations in a bid to protect themselves from the negative emotions that might be sparked by honesty. By doing this, leaders create work cultures that are void of the honest and productive feedback that allows team members to improve themselves.
When a leader doesn’t spend time clarifying an organization’s values, those values will be too ambiguous to be modeled or evaluated. The leader will waste time trying to “wrong” behaviors that don’t align with their vision for the organization, without being able to pinpoint why the behavior is wrong or what behavior would be considered “right.”
Additionally, organization members should be able to lean on their values when faced with a tough decision. Wishy-washy values aren’t strong enough to act as a guide, and organization members risk listening to whatever opinion is loudest, or doing what is easiest over what is right.
When there’s no culture of trust in a workplace, team members hold back from expressing new ideas for fear of being ridiculed by their colleagues or punished for going against the status quo. This lack of trust extends to the way team members recover from failure and shame as well—they don’t talk about or work...
Vulnerability is exposure to the risk of failure, to situations with uncertain outcomes, or to the possibility of emotional harm. Facing your vulnerability is at the base of brave leadership: it’s only in meeting vulnerability head-on that you can master your response to the fear and uncertainty that come along with it. Before you can face your vulnerability, you need to understand what it looks like. There are six widely-held myths about what vulnerability is, and how you should react to it.
While vulnerability does stem from situations that make you feel afraid, it’s important to understand that vulnerability isn’t fear. Rather, it’s recognizing your feelings of fear and knowing that something out of your control may happen, and being brave enough to push on anyway. It’s not weak—walking into, rather than avoiding, tough situations or the potential for failure takes an immense amount of courage.
Life is naturally full of experiences that have uncertain outcomes and expose you to the risk of failure—it’s not possible to have a work culture void of vulnerability. No matter what measures you take, vulnerability will naturally happen to you and your team members. Choosing not to engage with this vulnerability doesn’t signal bravery or control. Rather, it signals that your work culture is based in hiding from and being driven by emotions.
A work culture that doesn’t “do” vulnerability reacts to failure with fear and anger, in a way that doesn’t truly represent their values. On the other hand, work cultures with brave leadership that encourages engagement with the emotions of vulnerability react to failure with productive self-awareness that’s aligned with the organization’s values.
Asking for help, sharing ideas, and connecting with others can be frightening because you can’t control how your need for help or your ideas are perceived, or you may be rejected. You can avoid this vulnerability only if you never...
As a leader, you need to debunk the myths of vulnerability in your workplace—and be the first one to model how vulnerability can be allowed.
Think about how the myths of vulnerability show up in your workplace. What messages do you send about vulnerability? (Example: Risk is considered a weakness, not a brave learning opportunity—team members’ risky ideas are shut down with no consideration.)
Leadership naturally demands that you engage in difficult conversations where you give and receive feedback, or bring up emotional issues that your team is facing. These conversations often stir up fear and uncertainty—you can’t control how they will go, and often they depend on a great deal of emotional exposure.
It’s tempting to shy away from the uncertainty of these conversations. Facing vulnerability, however, grants you the courage to approach these conversations with honesty and clarity—your guiding principle in difficult conversations should be that it’s kind to be clear, and unkind to be unclear. This ensures productive conversations that foster learning and give you necessary insight to best serve your team.
First, we’ll look at how this principle should guide feedback sessions, and then we’ll discuss how you can depend on clarity of language to open conversations about difficult or awkward emotions.
Often, people give feedback that is polite, but dishonest. Their argument is that giving polite feedback is the nice thing to do—but the real motive isn’t so altruistic. In fact, people give polite feedback because it’s easier and more comfortable for them. Dishonesty allows them to avoid the discomfort of telling someone they’re not performing to their standards.
Dishonest, polite feedback is unkind because it’s unfair—the recipient receives no indication that they need to improve, yet they’re held accountable for their lack of improvement. Moreover, it wastes time and creates frustration as the same unaddressed problems continue to crop up.
The natural remedy to this issue is to start giving direct, honest feedback. Be aware that doing so might be a difficult adjustment to your team if you’ve created a culture where polite but dishonest feedback is the norm. To avoid having your team shut down or get defensive in response to this new type of feedback, volunteer yourself as the first honest feedback recipient.
Go into this first feedback session with two goals in mind: to model a thoughtful...
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Being clear in your feedback about your expectations and intentions is essential to avoiding more problems down the line.
Describe a recent situation where you gave unclear feedback that resulted in unfair frustration with a team member.
As a leader, you need to be willing to address tough emotional issues with your team members and open up a conversation about them.
What’s an awkward or difficult emotional topic that you think the people in your organization need to talk about? (Think: loneliness in the military, burnout among teachers, doubt within a worship community).
Often, leaders try to engineer vulnerability out of their work cultures because they believe that it will make their team members more efficient and less susceptible to emotions. In fact, when organization members aren’t given the opportunity to face their vulnerability and think through their emotions, they allow their ego to take control and become more susceptible to emotional reactivity. The ego will adopt any behavior that might protect it from being bruised by negative emotions such as embarrassment or shame.
Leaders and their team members usually resort to one or several of 16 defensive behaviors—in this chapter, we’ll walk through how these behaviors present themselves, how they hold back your team, and how brave leaders take steps to discourage them and solve their sources.
When prevented from engaging with negative emotions, team members may escape their feelings with numbing agents such as drinking, shopping, over-scheduling, gambling, and so on. Besides the obvious risk of addiction, this threatens their mental health because it’s not possible to choose which emotions are numbed. Positive emotions are numbed along with the negative.
Brave leaders combat this behavior by regularly checking in with their emotional needs and finding healthy outlets for negative emotions, and teaching their team members how to do the same. This can be taught as a simple shift in thinking: rather than, “How can I make these feelings go away?” have your team members try, “What is the source of how I’m feeling?” This shift replaces the need for a numbing vice with the choice of an appropriate comfort. For example, a team member might feel angry and indulge in a bottle of wine to cope. But if she were to explore the source of the feelings—she’s feeling irritable at the end of a hard day and needs some calming alone time—she can choose a more comforting outlet like putting on some favorite music and cooking a nutritious meal.
Practice spotting defensive behaviors in your organization and taking steps to discourage them.
Describe a recent situation where one of your team members resorted to a defensive behavior (such as perfectionism, criticism, or overcompensating to prove their worth).
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Many defensive behaviors in the workplace are, at their core, about avoiding the threat of shame—the feeling that something you’ve done (or not done), a goal you haven’t achieved, or an ideal you didn’t measure up to makes you a flawed person unworthy of connection, love, or belonging.
Shame touches your core, telling you that you deserve failure, are deeply alone, and that your bad actions are not just behaviors, but who you inherently are. It’s sometimes grouped with other negative emotions such as guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment, which are usually short-lived and relatively superficial. However, it’s important to understand how shame differs from these emotions—it’s much more painful and frightening, and therefore much more powerful.
Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt happens when you act against your values, giving you the feeling that you’ve done something bad. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s usually a valuable learning experience that reminds you of your values, and prompts an apology or behavioral changes. Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling that you are bad and usually doesn’t reveal any sort of learning experience—instead of making changes, you believe that you’re inherently a bad person, incapable of doing better.
Shame is not the same as humiliation. Humiliation is short-lived and externalized—you don’t feel bad about yourself, but rather about how you’ve been treated in a situation. Shame, on the other hand, is deep-rooted and internalized—you feel bad because you believe you are the problem. Imagine you were publicly chastised for missing a deadline. Humiliation would look like, “I didn’t deserve to be called out in front of everyone.” Shame, however, would look like, “I was called out because I am a failure.” Humiliation doesn’t usually feel deserved, but shame always does.
Shame is not the same as embarrassment. Embarrassment is a fleeting emotion that you know is universal. Usually, like falling down the stairs in middle school, it can even be funny in the future. Shame, however, is very lonely—you believe...
Shame is a powerful feeling that can drive you to defensive behaviors if you don’t keep it in check by practicing shame resilience.
Describe a recent situation at work where you felt shame.
You and your team members can diminish shame and defensive behaviors in your organization by responding to shame with effective empathy.
Think of a time when someone shared shame with you, and you practiced “false empathy.” What was their experience, and how did you respond?
When faced with vulnerable moments or tough decisions, brave leaders depend on their “grounded confidence.” Grounded confidence is confidence firmly rooted in strong values, self-awareness, and curiosity—it’s what allows you as a leader to face your vulnerability instead of running away and hiding behind defensive behaviors. It’s a crucial component to any healthy work culture, but it’s not something that you inherently have. It needs to be developed, in two ways: continually practicing your values and self-awareness, and approaching your work with curiosity.
The first component—continually practicing your values and self-awareness—is what allows you to think clearly and with integrity when things get hard. Think about how in sports, you practice the same footwork or play over and over again. You do this so you can perform it perfectly every time, even in the heightened pressure of a game. Your body goes through the motions, while your mind focuses on the rest of the field instead of your feet.
Continually practicing your values and self-awareness works the same way—you practice until acting with integrity and avoiding defensive behaviors becomes second nature, even under pressure or in moments of fear. If you’re able to trust yourself to do the right thing—every time, without deliberation—you’ll be able to free up your mind to focus on the overarching goals of your organization.
This continuous practice does not mean that high-pressure, vulnerable moments will become easy. But it does mean that you will have the confidence to walk into these moments in the first place, knowing that your well-practiced values and self-awareness will guide you in acting with integrity, avoiding defensive behaviors and will ensure that you come out the other side having learned something.
The second component of grounded confidence—approaching your work with curiosity—grants you the courage to reckon with uncertainty and failure. In situations or decisions...
Grounded confidence requires that you have strong values, which makes the second skill of brave leadership, choosing and practicing your values, particularly important. If you don’t have clear values guiding you through vulnerable situations, it’s very easy to make decisions outside of your integrity. Either you let the voices of critics take control and make decisions you don’t necessarily agree with, or you avoid vulnerability by doing what’s most comfortable instead of what’s right.
We’ll discuss the process of clarifying your values and ensuring they’re put into practice, and then we’ll explore how to effectively carry that process into your organization.
As a leader, your first step should be to make sure that you’ve clarified your own values—these will be your guide in making tough decisions, taking risks, and showing your team how to face vulnerability. When choosing your values, consider what your innermost self holds most important in life. Your values should be so defined and clear that acting in line with them doesn’t feel like a conscious choice—they’re simply who you are.
The tricky part of choosing your values is that you need to narrow down to just two core values. If you have too many values, they become meaningless feel-good words, rather than principles that guide your behaviors and intent, and that fuel your ability to commit to things you hold important. For example, “family” may not be one of your two values, but “connection” is. Therefore, connection is at the center of how you make decisions about and within your family. Because possible values are so varied—understanding, wealth, gratitude, recognition, career, joy, diversity, growth—it might be easiest for you to first cut down to ten values that you feel are important, and then narrow down to two from there.
(Shortform note: there are many “value lists” online that can help you with exploring the full range of possible values and finding those that you identify with most.)
Be careful to choose values that you truly...
Identifying value-supporting behaviors makes it easier to teach and evaluate values, and spot opportunities for improvement.
Choose two core values (such as connection, equality, authenticity, kindness, or loyalty) that drive your organization. Recall that it might be easier to list ten values that are important and then narrow down to the two that should drive decision making and behavior.
The third skill of brave leadership—building trust—is essential to innovative cultures, because trust allows you to rely on others and feel that they have your best interests in mind, and to feel comfortable breaking the status quo or suggesting new ideas. However, as essential as this skill is, it’s rarely brought up in discussion. There’s a huge disconnect between how trustworthy you consider yourself and how trustworthy you consider others to be—but this disconnect is never addressed, for fear that doing so will cause an emotional reaction in the “less trustworthy” person.
Brave leaders understand the importance of recognizing the trustworthiness of their team members, and vice versa, so they don’t shy away from having conversations about trust. However, these conversations don’t speak directly to a team member’s trustworthiness, as it’s a touchy topic and usually prompts a defensive response. Instead, brave leaders talk about trust by discussing the behaviors that demonstrate trustworthiness. Attaching behaviors to the concept of trust accomplishes two goals:
If you want to develop your trust in your team members, look out for the trustworthy behaviors they are demonstrating every day. Recall from the first chapter on vulnerability that trust is built in small...
You can build trust with your team members by assuming positive intent and rethinking how your actions may be getting in their way.
Think of a recent situation where a team member fell short of your expectations and you made a negative assumption about their intent.
The fourth courage-building skill is developing failure resilience—that is, the ability to get up, dust yourself off, and move on after something goes wrong. This is an essential skill for leaders to teach, because people are more likely to take risks and try new ideas when they’re confident in their ability to recover from any setback.
Unfortunately, many leaders teach failure resilience after a failure has already happened. Imagine teaching a skydiver how to land once they’ve already hit the ground—you’ll be dealing with a lot of broken bones and a long recovery. In the same way, if you don’t teach your team members how to “land,” you’ll end up wasting time recovering from problematic behaviors—such as covering up mistakes, blaming others, or perfectionism—that are based in the fear of failure. Brave leaders teach the steps of failure resilience from the very beginning of the onboarding process—this normalizes failure, and signals that team members will be supported, not shamed, when (not if) it happens.
Teaching failure resilience is more important now than ever, as millennials and GenZ enter the workforce. These generations are often not well-equipped to handle setbacks, due to being overprotected by their parents. Because their parents focused on paving the road for them, instead of preparing them for the bumpy road, they haven’t been exposed to the risk of failure and are prone to reacting defensively to any failures, real or perceived.
Productive responses to failure require the two components of failure resilience: 1) recognizing and questioning your emotional response to failure, and 2) unraveling the story you create around failure.
As with shame resilience, the first step of failure resilience is recognizing and questioning your emotional response to failure. It’s not important to know exactly what you’re feeling. You just need to know that your emotions have been triggered in some way. Failure responses can take many forms—physical or mental—and are very specific to you....
Practice the process of unraveling a bad first draft in order to separate the facts of a situation from your insecurities and biases.
Think of a recent time where you made up a story and worst-case scenario to explain what was happening. Describe the story you told yourself. (Ex. Jack didn’t say hello to me this morning. He must be upset about that typo I made in his presentation. I bet he’s going to take me off that new project.)