Dare to Lead is the latest New York Times bestseller from Brené Brown. Perhaps the most well-known social worker of contemporary times, Brown is known for her storytelling, numerous publications, TED talks, and down-to-earth style. Her latest offering focuses on leadership. For Brown social work fans, Dare to Lead, the result of extensive research with business leaders and a fair amount of self-reflection, is a compelling addition to the psychology of leadership.
Brown intends for the book to be a quick and easy read. However, each chapter holds such rich, engaging, and thought-provoking content, the reader needs time to absorb, re-read, and consider one’s own work setting. Some of us have experienced inadequate or inappropriate leadership in our agencies that left us feeling as if we were the square peg in the agency’s round hole. Dare to Lead is part naming of the experience of working in the contemporary workspace and part challenge to develop whole-hearted leadership.
For example, in the introduction, Brown identifies ten behaviors and cultural organizational issues that leaders identify as “getting in our way” (p. 7-9). All of the items are linked to emotional issues, such as diminishing trust, fear of failure, shame and blame, rushing to solutions, using work time to manage problematic behaviors or agency problems rather than focusing on the organization’s work. Sound familiar?
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” (p. 4). Using this definition, Dare to Lead is highly applicable to social work supervision, social work agencies, and social work practice.
Overarchingly, she maintains that vulnerability is the key to good leadership, and that organizations have a responsibility to create a culture where there is psychological safety to support worker vulnerability. Vulnerability is defined as “the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (p. 19). Using Brown’s definition, the reader must let go of the presumption that vulnerability is the act of sharing of intimate personal details in a work setting. Rather, vulnerability involves opening oneself to how others in the organization are experiencing you, being open to change, being open to creativity, and being open to failure. Brown outlines six myths of vulnerability and makes the case that without vulnerability, successful work outcomes are not possible.
She re-introduces concepts such as “rumbling,” outlined in other work but used in Dare to Lead as the willingness to have difficult, honest, and vulnerable conversations about how work is approached. Brown outlines specific strategies for teams, including each person “owning our parts,” examining false dichotomies (i.e. operations and creativity always as competing concepts) that limit each person’s ability to be one’s full self, and the value of apologies in the workplace.
Section Three of the book speaks particularly to “armored leadership,” which functions to protect the vulnerable self, and “daring leadership,” which functions to serve the organization and those who work for and are served by the organization.
Brown’s themes of vulnerability, isolation, fear, connection, and trust are consistent with other theoretical approaches, including Relational-Cultural Theory. These themes could not be more relevant in contemporary times and in contemporary agencies where there is often overwhelming focus on compliance, measurability, and technology, and increasingly, what feels like little focus on the client experience. Dare to Lead challenges us to think differently about the components of quality leadership, a message that resonates with social workers.