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On this episode of Dare to Lead

This is Part 2 of our two-part series on daring leadership, where I unpack four more common types of armor that we use to self-protect when we’re in fear. These barriers include creating a fitting-in culture versus a belonging culture, fostering a scarcity-based culture versus modeling that we are enough and have enough, leading reactively versus leading strategically, and resisting change versus accepting and embracing change.

About the guest

Brené Brown

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. She also holds the position of visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

Brené has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is the author of six #1 New York Times bestsellers and is the host of two award-winning podcasts, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead.

Brené’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and her titles include Atlas of the HeartDare to Lead, Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, and The Gifts of Imperfection. With Tarana Burke, she co-edited the bestselling anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience.

Brené’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability is one of the top five most-viewed TED talks in the world, with over 60 million views. Brené is the first researcher to have a filmed lecture on Netflix, and in March 2022, she launched a new show on HBO Max that focuses on her latest book, Atlas of the Heart.

Brené spends most of her time working in organizations around the world, helping develop braver leaders and more courageous cultures.

She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Steve. They have two children, Ellen and Charlie, and a weird Bichon named Lucy.

Show notes

Braving the Wilderness _ Brené Brown MSW

Braving the Wilderness, by Brené Brown


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, this is Dare To Lead, and I am Brené Brown. This is Part Two of a two-part series on armored leadership versus daring leadership.

BB: So in Part One, we talked about the big finding in the research that it’s not fear that gets in the way of daring leadership, it’s armor, it’s the way we self-protect when we’re in fear that sets us back from showing up in courageous ways. We also went through three different types of armor and compared them to daring leadership, so we talked about being a knower and being right versus being a learner and getting it right, we talked about tapping out of hard conversations versus leaning into vulnerability and, keyword here, skilling, skilling up for hard conversations, and we talked about using shame and blame to manage others and ourselves, and we talked about leading ourselves and others from a place of empathy, accountability, and learning.

BB: So in this episode, we’re going to dig into a few more really common types of armor that I come across again in organizations and teams, in myself, and we’re going to talk about what are the indicator behaviors under these types of armor and what are the indicator behaviors and the commitments that we need to make in order to move from armored leadership to daring leadership. Glad you’re here.

BB: Before we jump into exploring different types of armored versus daring leadership, I want to go back to something we talked about in Part One of this series, which is using shame and blame to manage others and to manage ourselves versus leading and managing others from a place of empathy, accountability, and learning.

BB: In the last episode, I talked about looking for shame in organizations or teams is really like doing the termite inspection, if you see it, you’ve got a crisis, but more often than not, shame is behind the walls. And I wanted to unpack that a little bit, because what does it mean when shame is behind the walls, like how does it show up in ways that we’re not actually seeing it as shame, we’re not seeing people be berated, we’re not seeing name-calling, we’re not seeing put-downs, but what does shame behind the walls look like?

BB: Okay, so behind the walls shame can look like a lot of different things. And so we have collected this research over the past decade, and again, taken… They corrected my number from last time, I said 40,000, but I think we’ve taken 50,000 people through Dare To Lead training, so we’ve got some really good data on what shame behind the walls looks like.

BB: So let me give you some examples. One, shame shows up at work, back-channeling, meaning rather than talking to people and directly talking to them, you talk about them or it’s kind of the meeting after the meeting. So you’re in the meeting, “What does everybody think?” “I think it’s great, great idea. I just haven’t heard anything that innovative in a long time,” and then as soon as you walk out, you’re like, “Oh my God, that shit’s never going to work.” Instead of speaking up and bringing your point of view in a straightforward, compelling, respectful way, you’re back-channeling. Blaming and finger-pointing is another sign that shame is probably rooted in the culture, bullying, comparison, cover-ups, everyone’s hiding something or lying about something, not telling the truth about something, discrimination.

BB: One of the most painful forms of shame in organizations is favoritism. Favoritism is shame in action, because the people that are subjected to your favoritism and not part of the favorites feel smaller, diminished, less than, put down. Gossiping. Let me tell you, if you’ve got a gossiping issue, you got a shame behind the wall issue. Harassment. The invisible army. Oh, this one pisses me off. This is when I come to you and I say, “Hey, we’re all really concerned about how you’re handling the new benefits package.” We, the invisible army. And that’s if someone comes up to me and says like, hey, “We’ve all been talking and we really think you should reconsider,” my first question is: “Who’s we?” “Well, me and the group.” “What group?” “Just me and the people in the office.” “What specific people have concerns about the way this is being handled, and let’s sit down together and talk about it.” So don’t use we unless you got a mouse in your pocket, that doesn’t work, just the visible army is really tough.

BB: Nostalgia can really be a form of shame: “Well, we didn’t do things that way before you came around.” “Really, before digital transformation, we didn’t do those kind of things and we were super successful.” It’s a very biting, cutting way of not just clear is kind. Just say what you mean, mean what you say. I always think nostalgia is a love for the way things used to be, and the missing parenthetical is when people knew their place. So not a fan of nostalgia.

BB: Perfectionism. I mean, perfectionism is absolutely a function of shame. Perfectionism is the 20-ton shield that we carry around, if I look perfect, work perfect, turn everything in perfectly, do it all perfectly, I can avoid or minimize shame, judgment, and blame. Any kind of management tool where we’re tying people’s self-worth to their productivity, you are as good as what you produce, shame in the walls. Teasing, shame in the walls; passive-aggressive behavior, I would look for shame. I mean, it’s not always driven by shame, but there’s often a shame in the wall problem.

BB: Forced ranked performance: Inherently shaming. Not a fan, can find no data to substantiate the fact that when we force people into rankings, that it does anything but crush innovation, creativity, and collaboration.

BB: So these were some of the things that I wanted to follow up on the last podcast around shame and blame as armored leadership as opposed to leading from empathy, accountability, and learning.

BB: Alright, first one we’re going to dig in today, first type of armor versus daring leadership is fostering a scarcity-driven culture versus committing to and modeling we are enough and we have enough. So scarcity is basically, there’s never enough blank, never enough time, never enough people, never enough clarity, never enough, never enough, never enough. And a lot of times, one of the key indicators we see in scarcity-based cultures is we don’t acknowledge good work and small successes because we fear some people might become complacent and slow down, so never take your foot off the gas, never celebrate the small win, because if you do, people are going to stop working hard.

BB: That is just not true. There are no data that support that. In fact, if you look in the research, what the data support is really the fact that when you don’t slow down, when you don’t acknowledge small wins, when you don’t acknowledge incremental victories, it increases burn-out significantly. On the other hand, when teams and leaders regularly practice gratitude, celebrate milestones and wins, people normally redouble their efforts, so it can feel counterintuitive, but really we need to stop and recognize, even if we’ve got a long way to go, what we’ve accomplished, because it re-fuels folks. And when people are afraid to do that, that’s because normally the culture is very scarcity-driven.

BB: Another indicator, and I think of these indicators as indicator like warning lights in your car. Another indicator warning light of a scarcity-driven culture is leaders using fear and uncertainty to drive productivity. We could lose the accounts, we could lose the accounts, we could shut down, we could do this, we’ve got to do this. It is exhausting, it is unrelenting, and it does not drive productive, innovative, creative thinking.

BB: On the other side, on the daring leadership side, instead of using fear and uncertainty to drive productivity, when there’s actually collective fear or uncertainty, which is a reality in the world today, leaders acknowledge the fear and uncertainty, they name it, they normalize it, with the goal of not leveraging it or using it, but de-escalating it. Big difference. Armored leadership, exhaustion is rewarded as a status symbol as opposed to daring leadership where leaders model and respect boundaries and self-care. Huge difference. When we joke and reward, even informally, exhaustion, pulled an all-nighter, got here at 6:00, left at 1:00, oh, man, so that’s awesome. Really, what we need to model is, tell me what’s on your plate right now that’s driving that that doesn’t feel healthy or sustainable.

BB: Another indicator light is in these kind of scarcity-driven armored leadership cultures, because our perceived value is often tied to our performance, we tend to hustle for our worth. Now, one of I think the hardest relationships to manage is the person who is constantly hustling for their worth, constantly vying for validation that they’re good enough, that their work is important, that they’re a contributor. And you often see that in scarcity-based cultures. In a culture where we’re modeling that we’re enough and we have enough, our work and efforts are acknowledged and we’re valued as people even when we make mistakes or fall short.

BB: So one of the things that we do, we call them our goals meetings that we have on a regular basis with our direct reports, is we ask people to come with this kind of prepared statement of, here’s where I think I contribute a lot of value, and here’s where I think my contributions are important, and we fill it out separately as the leaders and we compare notes. Are you clear as my direct report on where I see you adding a lot of value? And when people are hustling for their worth, I think leaders need to ask the question: Have we helped them be clear on what their value is?

BB: Another indicator light is there’s a level of comparison and ranking that drives the mentality of win, lose, crush or be crushed, kill or be killed. And part of that, really comparison and ranking is that scarcity-based armored leadership culture. On the daring leadership side, we have fostering healthy competition that supports collaboration. The best competition is competition that supports collaboration, like I think about… I’m not ever going to get through any of these podcasts moving forward without talking about pickleball, there will be a pickleball metaphor for everything, so as an ex-tennis player who… I was a singles player, I never really played doubles tennis, I played tennis for 30-some, 40 years, I don’t know, a long time since I was little.

BB: And so pickleball, have been playing a lot of doubles, and what I realized is that I’m a very competitive person, but I’m as excited to be the person who clicks paddles with my partner and says great serve, wonderful return as I am to say, we got this, great idea, when it was a mis-shot. It’s competitiveness that doesn’t just support collaboration, but it’s a level of competition that nurtures collaboration. And we all know when we’re in that and when we all know when we’re not.

BB: Okay, I’m going to actually skip the one on values, because I think I am going to do what I talked about in Part One and do a values episode with y’all where I go through with a couple of folks the values exercise and kind of show you how we look at it and talk about it, so that maybe you can do it with your teams and in your organization as well.

BB: Okay, the next one I want to talk about is driving a fitting-in culture, which is a form of armored leadership, versus cultivating a belonging culture, which is daring leadership. So in a fitting-in culture, let me back us up for a sec and remind us that in the research that I shared, I’ve shared it ever since The Gifts, so it was in all the early books, but if you really want to do a deep dive into true belonging, that is Braving the Wilderness. But one of the things I talk about that was so shocking to me in that research is that the opposite of true belonging is actually fitting in, because fitting in is assessing a situation and becoming who you think you need to be, and belonging is being yourself in a situation so that you can experience real connection.

BB: And true belonging is hard because our level of true belonging can never really exceed our level of self-worth, because if our self-worth is not high, then I’m quick to change who I am, and trust me when I say I. Let me tell y’all, I am chameleon par excellence. I learned very early through a lot of hard situations, including never feeling like I really belonged at school, and more painfully never really feeling like I belonged in my family, I really learned a lot about how to be whoever you needed me to be, until that kind of felt like it started killing me around my late 30s. And so part of my mid-life unraveling was, I’ve got to stop alternating who I am. As my therapist used to say, stop alternating and start integrating, one person, one Brené.

BB: No matter who you are and in whatever context you see me, what you see is what you get, and that’s been probably one of the greatest, most affirming changes in my life, just one Brené, for better or worse. So when we talk about armored leadership versus daring leadership, we talk about driving a fitting-in culture, where we expect people to observe and adapt, versus a belonging culture where we expect people to bring their real selves. And if we want creativity and innovation, if we want to be able to serve diverse customers, we need people bringing themselves, different viewpoints, diversity representation, inclusion, equity across the board at all intersections.

BB: And so common indicator for a fitting-in culture is commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion are not practiced even when they’re professed. In a belonging culture, the commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion are priority practices in strategy and decision-making, they’re not off to the side, siloed as a vertical, they are a shared thing that runs across every vertical in every area, human resources and diversity and equity is at the highest priority level reporting directly to the CEO, there are no decisions made without that taken into consideration. In a fitting-in culture, people are held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions. Assimilation is promoted and valued, versus in a belonging culture, diverse perspectives are cultivated, valued, and prioritized. We hire for them, we reward them, we frame sharing difference in opinions and life experiences as courageous and as value-added to the company.

BB: In a fitting-in culture, strategies for dismantling systemic bias are reactive. So we pull efforts together when there’s been an issue or a problem, versus in a belonging culture, strategies for dismantling systemic bias are proactive. We are not reacting to something, we are always doing something to dismantle the systems that privilege some over others and push some to the margins, while centering others.

BB: Last, in armored leadership, in a fitting-in culture, care for and connection with others are not seen as requirements for effective leadership. In a belonging culture, care for and connection with others are seen as irreducible requirements for leading. This was a very powerful finding in the research on daring leadership, one that has fundamentally restructured and reorganized how I think of myself as a leader, up to and including sometimes saying, I’m really struggling to build meaningful connection with this person, I don’t know if I’m the right leader, or I need to do some real personal work or some real professional coaching work around what the barrier is to connection. And it’s funny because I was so like, “Wow.” Care for and connection with is a requirement for leading someone I have to care for and be connected with the people I lead. True or not true? Not sure.

BB: So we started digging in and digging into the data, it just came up solid as a rock. Absolutely, you must care for, be connected with. So the first place I went to go speak after this idea emerged from the data was a high-level military base, Air Force base, working with pilots, fighter pilots, squadron commanders. And I was like, oh, God, I don’t know how this is going to go over. Let’s see. And I was talking with the general in charge and I said, “One of the things I’m going to talk about today with your squadron commanders is this idea of caring for and connection with being prerequisites for good leadership, daring leadership.”

BB: And he said, “Absolutely. We actually take it a step further here, we say, if you feel no affection for someone, you cannot lead them, you must feel affection for the people you lead.” And I thought, “God, that’s right,” and so look, sometimes for me, that takes personal work, with my therapist and sometimes that’s coaching work to see what in that person, usually a behavior that is too close to comfort for me, is creating the divide. It’s a big ask to have affection for the people we lead, but it’s a big job. And if you can’t cultivate it, better to move that person to a leader who can offer that, because that’s what the people we’re leading deserve.

BB: Last one I’m going to look at in today’s session, and if these are helpful, there are several more of them, and I can do another podcast down the line, but I want to talk about… Actually, I think I’m going to do two more. First one, armored leadership versus daring leadership, leading reactively versus leading proactively and strategically.

BB: So leading reactively is a form of armored leadership because we’re in fear, we react, we self-protect. Leading proactively and strategically requires making good decisions based on the best data we have at the time. It’s more vulnerable. It’s hard getting out in front of things, being strategic in our thinking, it is more risk-taking, requires more innovation, but it is daring leadership.

BB: So an indicator of leading reactively is decision-making, problem-solving, and delegation processes are scattered, reactive, and done without context of other organizational issues. People are panicked, they’re working in silos, and they’re moving fast to fix something or repair something without stepping back and out of the panic and the fear to make a more holistic decision. When we lead proactively and strategically, decision-making, problem-solving, and delegation practices are thoughtful deliberate and integrated with ongoing organizational strategies. A huge indicator light related to this in leading reactively: Action bias. Get it done now, which often leads us to solve problems that we haven’t fully defined.

BB: I have really awful action bias, y’all. When something especially consumer-facing happens, I’m trying to replace the pattern of my go-to response being “Fix this shit now” to “Help me understand what’s happening.” Do we have a full deep understanding of what’s happening? So that’s what I’m trying to do right now. I’m about 70% there. Funny story, we had a consumer-facing issue at work. I was so upset by it, and I walked up to the group that was trying to handle it, and I said, “We need to fix this shit now.” And the leader of that team said, “We’re on it.” And as I started to walk away, I only got three or four feet away before I heard her actually say, “So God, y’all, what should we be fixing exactly?”

BB: And I turned back around and I walked up to the team and I said, “I heard that.” And she said, “Look, I’m sorry, but we have fixed this before and clearly we’re not fixing the right thing.” It took us three or four hours to sit in that discomfort and that uncertainty and that vulnerability and ask questions and say, “I don’t know,” and get data we didn’t have, and just be uncomfortable, uncomfortable, uncomfortable, hard, hard, hard, until we finally figured out the answer to this was actually an external cache problem at a server farm. But finally figured out, we fixed it. It’s never happened since. But action bias, what problem are we trying to solve? Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it.” So the daring leadership side is just that: We invest in problem identification and definition.

BB: The last indicator that I think is really interesting is during challenging times and a leading reactively environment, we often overreact or get paralyzed on decision-making and delegation. So when things are stressful and challenging and we’re used to leading reactively, we either freeze up and get paralyzed or we overreact in the wrong direction. When we lead proactively and strategically, open heart, vulnerability, not being knowers but being learners, we have systems and skills in place that allow us to be thoughtful and decisive in our decision-making and delegation when things get tough. We build systems. So in our company, we have a circle back system, which means we circle back on things where we didn’t show up like we wanted to or we need to reexamine something. We have a story rumble. When there’s a mistake, we have a process in place.

BB: James Clear, who wrote Atomic Habits, has this amazing quote that… Oh, man, I just live by this. He says, “We don’t rise to our highest goals. We fall to the level of our most broken systems.” So sometimes… And this is a big finding, especially since we’ve taken all these tens of thousands of people through Dare To Lead, is that sometimes we need courageous systems in place when we’re afraid. We need, in our strongest moments, to build systems that are going to force us to stay in the rumble, to stay in the uncertainty, to be thoughtful and decisive rather than erratic in our decision-making or paralyzed. We need to build systems that support courage, because we can’t always depend on human courage, especially when the shit hits the fan.

BB: Alright, last one I want to go through, and this is another example of armored versus daring leadership. The armored leadership is resisting change. The daring leadership is accepting and embracing change. This is a hard one. An indicator light where we’re in a culture of change resistance is that in the face of change, the fear of irrelevance leads us to feeling stuck, so we double down on nostalgia and the way things used to be.

BB: So let me break this down for you. Change is happening, and all of a sudden we’re afraid. What if I’m not valuable in this new system? What if what I know or my expertise isn’t what’s needed anymore? And y’all have to remember that the biggest shame trigger at work is the fear of irrelevance. What I know, who I am, what I’m contributing is not relevant anymore. So now change is coming, and we get into the shame and the fear of irrelevance, so we double down. We cross our arms across our chest and we say, “Well, that’s not the way that we’ve done that before. That’s not the way we’ve always done things. That’s not the way we do things around here.”

BB: And we lock down so tight that our fear of irrelevance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We shut down ourselves to learning. We shut down ourselves to being curious. We shut down what we need to stay open and change. In a culture, a daring culture, where we accept and embrace change, as things shift and change, we double down on learning and skill-building while maintaining confidence about our ability to contribute.

BB: I love the best example of this. Oh, my God, Octavia Spencer’s character in Hidden Figures, when NASA’s bringing in Watson and the IBM, which can do the calculations. What takes her team a day, her team of 20 a day, Watson, this new IBM computer, can do in 15 seconds. And here she is leading this team of women calculators, like human beings who are doing calculations at NASA. And so here they bring in IBM and she doesn’t shake her head and fold her arms across her chest and say, “Well, you can’t trust computers and this is the end of the world, and machine learning is going to ruin us all.” No, no, no, no, no, no, no. She sneaks into that room and learns how to use Watson, so the day… And this is a true story. The day that the IBM people are going to demonstrate Watson for all of the staff at NASA, they can’t get it started. She walks up and starts it.

BB: They say, “What are you doing? Don’t touch it.” And she’s like, “Can y’all work it?” And they’re like, “We actually can’t.” She’s like, “I can.” And she becomes the first black female manager at NASA and saves the jobs of her entire team who she also trains on it. That’s accepting and embracing change.

BB: Last indicator light under resisting change is that change and uncertainty lead us to become increasingly territorial, cynical, or critical. Never going to work. Other people have tried this. This is stupid. Versus in the face of change, we’re open, collaborative, and curious about the future and what’s possible.

BB: So again, I thought it would be helpful just to spend a couple of episodes dedicated to walking through what is armored versus daring leadership. What does it look like, what are the indicator lights, and how can we as individuals become more and more aware of, it’s not like, “Oh, I am armored or I am daring, or on this continuum, I’m more armored.” Maybe that’s a great place to start for an assessment, and you can take an assessment on for free. It’ll give you some interesting information on the four skill sets of courage, vulnerability, values, trust, and getting back up after failures and rising, but we’re all all of these elements. Sometimes if something’s really scary for me, I can get more armored. Sometimes when I have some more confidence or grounded confidence, which is what we use to replace armor. We replace armor with grounded confidence, curiosity, the ability to be in vulnerability without tapping out, and practice. We’re all all of these things, and it’s about self-awareness. It’s about, “Wow. When am I armoring up? What’s triggering it? How does that look? And how can I stay curious instead of armored?”

BB: I appreciate y’all joining me for this two-part series. I hope it’s helpful. I’m interested to hear what you think, because I can do some more of these if they are actionable and instructive, because that’s what I want Dare To Lead to be. And we’ve got great guests, but sometimes it’s fun just to drill down on the research. Really grateful for this listening community. Learning is great. Learning together is… That’s the power. Y’all stay awkward, brave, and kind, armor off, curiosity on.

BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Kristen Acevedo and Andy Waits, and the music is by The Suffers.


© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, April 12). Brené on Armored Versus Daring Leadership, Part 2 of 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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