On this episode of Unlocking Us
My thoughts on power and leadership and a conversation on empathy, unity, and courage with Vice President Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic Presidential nominee.
Brené Brown on Power and Leadership – click on the image to view and download.
The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope by Jonathan Alter
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: We have a special episode for you this week. I am talking to Vice President Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. Before we jump into our conversation, I want to share some observations with you about leadership, the nature of power, and why this conversation and the questions I ask are really important to me. I appreciate you being here.
BB: So, as some of you know, I’ve dedicated my entire career to studying the intersection of human behavior, emotion, and thought. I’ve spent the last 10 years specifically looking at leadership. Here’s one thing I know for sure. We cannot understand leadership if we don’t talk about power. We have a very strange relationship with the word “power”. We often think of it as negative, as kind of a strong-arm experience, where we either feel pressure or something’s taken away from us, yet at the exact same time we kind of push away this notion of power, one of the single worst human experiences for all of us is powerlessness. No one wants to feel powerless. It’s a desperate and kind of isolating experience.
BB: So we have a really complex relationship with just the term “power”, not to mention the actual experience of power. The most accurate and important definition of power that I’ve ever come across in my career in terms of aligning with the data that we’ve collected, which we have now crossed over 400,000 pieces of data over the last 20 years, the best definition I’ve seen is from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a definition that he shared in Memphis, Tennessee, 1968, in a speech he was giving to striking sanitation workers.
BB: King defined power as “the ability to achieve purpose and effect change.” God, it’s simple, powerful, clear. Power is the ability to achieve purpose and effect change. The definition does not make the nature of power inherently good or bad, which again supports the data. What makes power dangerous and what we never talk about is how power is used. I think most of us have not been exposed to the fact that there are four different types of power, and this I can thank completely my social work education for this, that there is power over, and on the other side of the continuum, there is power with, power to, and power within. Leaders who use power over, and again, this is not just in the political sphere, but this is at work, this is in faith communities, this is in non-profits, NGOs, people who use power over work from the premise that power is finite and it has to be hoarded and protected. And power over is protected by using fear. Fear is the primary tool for protecting power for those that lead from a place of power over.
BB: Leaders who work from a position of power with and power to have a completely different foundational framework. They believe that power becomes infinite and expands when it’s shared with others. So there’s not a lot of hoarding, there’s not a lot of protecting, because there’s a core fundamental belief that, again, power is expansive when we collaborate and when we share it with others. And I want to go through some of the differences between power over, and power with, and power to, because when I got this incredible opportunity to have this conversation with Vice President Biden, I wanted to focus specifically on questions that help me understand his perspective of power. Is it power over, is it power with, power to, and power within?
BB: So let’s look at some of the other examples, how we compare and contrast power over and power with and to. And let me just say, if you’re saying, “Well, you just are looking at the Trump administration and lining up everything they do and then comparing it with this.” This, my work on power and the four different kinds of power, way predates this administration. It may go back 20 years, 15 years. It’s certainly in several of my books, including Dare to Lead. Again, this is not just political, this is about work environments, this is about community environments, faith communities, or any organization where people come together and there’s leadership.
BB: So, with power over, the goal is to leverage fear, to divide, destabilize, and devalue decency as a sign of weakness and for suckers. Really, being decent is seen as weakness, and the goal is to divide and destabilize because it’s how you maintain power, which you have to do when you believe it’s finite. When we talk about power with, and power to, shared power, the goal is to leverage connection and empathy to unite and stabilize, and actually, it’s interesting, because decency is valued and seen as an actual function of self-respect and respect for others. So, a tremendous difference between a goal of destabilizing and dividing, a goal of uniting, and differences around what decency means. Is decency for suckers or is decency a function of self-respect and respect for others?
BB: And I know this is kind of a lot to listen to, so I want to tell you that you can go to the show notes on brenebrown.com and you can get all this information, we’re putting it in a downloadable PDF for you. The third is, in a model of power over, it’s really important to give people who are experiencing fear and uncertainty a false sense of certitude and safety that is usually based on nostalgia or ideology over facts, because being right is more important than getting it right. So, one of the ways to maintain power and power over is when you’ve got scared people, you give them a sense of certainty, even if it’s just based on ideology.
BB: With power with and power to, you see a goal of giving people who are in the same amount of fear and uncertainty transparency. There’s also, because it’s a learning culture, power with and power to and power within is the foundation of a learning culture, it’s also critical thinking, evidence-based thinking, and information from multiple perspectives is foundational to power with and power to.
BB: Next, with power over, it’s important to give people someone to blame for their discomfort, preferably someone who looks, acts and sounds different from the majority culture. With power with and power to, way more difficult because we normalize discomfort, and there is a wholesale move away from shame and blame toward accountability and meaningful change. Next, when we talk about power over, again, the only way you maintain power over, you may have actually worked in an environment like this, or been to school in an environment like this, because this is not just political leadership, it’s leadership in general. Power over is maintained by fear, and fear has a very short shelf life. You can’t keep us afraid forever. So, one way you maintain power over is by demonstrating an ever-increasing capacity for cruelty, including shaming, bullying, belittling, especially toward vulnerable populations.
BB: With power with and power to, one of the core principles of power with, power to is servant leadership. Leadership is seen as a responsibility to be in service of others rather than served by others. So rather than having to constantly demonstrate more and more cruelty and a greater capacity for bullying and shaming and those things, it’s the opposite. I see my job as your leader, to serve you and be in service of you rather than served by you. My job is to empower you, not keep the power.
BB: The other thing that’s interesting, I think, that kind of goes along with this, it’s a little bit secondary, is with power over, and this is more in political leadership, constructs like personal rights and freedom are used to polarize, and being in service of other people is actually seen as weakness. Where with power with and power to, rights and freedoms go hand-in-hand with responsibility to country and to citizenry, or if you’re not in a political milieu, if you’re in an organization, rights and freedoms are seen going hand-in-hand with a commitment to the culture, to your colleagues.
BB: Last, and this is a really scary part of power over, there is a persistent inciting of hatred and violence with dehumanizing language and policies. Dehumanization is at the start line, the foundation of every genocide in recorded human history, and it’s that use of language where we take humanity away from people or from groups of people and instill more fear, and it is a very important ingredient in power over.
BB: Power with, power to, power within is empathy driven. The agendas are empathy driven, policies, values, place human value at the center. And so, I want to share this lens with you because it’s part of my training, and so when I look at leadership and I evaluate leadership, I want to know, are you working from a position of power over? Or are you interested in power with, power to and power within? And power within is about instilling inside of people a sense of agency, “I can get things done, I can,” in Martin Luther King’s words, “I can achieve purpose and effect change.”
BB: And I’m interested in that, because, having spent 90% of my time over the last decade inside of organizations, from Fortune 50 companies, special forces in the military, faith communities, NGOs all over the world, what I can tell you is, transformative leaders, political transformative leaders, corporate leaders, the best coaches, I get to work with a lot of professional sports teams, the best coaches, just the best leaders in general, are not interested in power over, they’re interested in power with, power to, and power within. So here’s my conversation with Vice President Biden. You’ll see the questions that I ask are really about trying to get to the bottom of how does he view power?
BB: Mr. Vice President, welcome to Unlocking Us.
Joe Biden: Thanks for having me.
BB: Absolutely. So, I always start by asking a very simple question in a complicated time. How are you doing?
JB: I’m doing well, but I’m convinced that the public is ready to get up and sort of take back their country and start to cooperate again.
BB: I’m starting to get that feeling.
JB: So am I. You may recall, I was pretty roundly criticized by a lot of very bright pundits talking about unity when I first started to run, they said, “No, they can’t do that. That’s the old days.” Talking about dealing with, bringing people back together again, even in politics, and they said, “That was the old days.” But I’m convinced that unless we do it, the only way this democracy can function is with consensus, and I’ve spent my whole career trying to figure out how to bring people together, not separate them, because otherwise, you end up in a circumstance where it all yields to executive power and abuse of power.
BB: It’s interesting to me because when we were kind of waiting to see who you were going to pick for your Vice President, I got in this conversation with a group of friends, and I said, “I think it’s going to be Senator Harris,” and I did, I…
JB: Good for you, ma’am. No wonder I like you.
BB: [laughter] No, it was interesting, because my friends just jumped on me and they said, “There’s no way, because she gave him the hardest time during the debates,” and I said, “But if you look at history, I don’t think he’s afraid of building coalitions and teams with people who disagree with him.”
JB: One of the reasons why my Irish heritage has been called into question is because I don’t hold grudges. [chuckle] And the fact is that I’m just convinced that we have to form an administration that looks and represents the American people across the board, and also someone who is ready, God forbid, on day one, that they could step up and be the President of the United States, and I think Kamala met all those requirements. So there were some really, really, really incredibly qualified women that were on my list, and I also think it’s important to let people know that it doesn’t do any good when we’re trying to bring things together to be so petty about something someone said to you. I’ve never let that get in my way of trying to get something done.
BB: I mean, if you look back, you really haven’t. It’s interesting, as someone who studies leadership, this is kind of my tenth year in this massive leadership study, and I have come to the belief that teams and coalitions are what drive success. How important to you is team building and coalition building, as you think about your administration?
JB: Well, the way I think about it is the way I’ve thought about it from the time I’ve been a kid, and I mean that sincerely. Leadership, at its core, in my view, is about being personal. It’s about being engaged. It’s about trying to put… You always put yourself in the other person’s position, and then also to understand where they’re coming from, whether it’s a major foreign leader or a friend who you have a disagreement with. And it’s also being willing to share credit, give recognition, and share in the benefits as well as in the losses, if you’re in an endeavor together. I think the hardest thing for most people is being willing to expose yourself to criticism and ridicule in order to change a damaged culture, whether it’s in business or in life. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you, they have assets you don’t possess, and never, this is the part that I don’t know if you’d agree with me on, but never confusing academic credentials with good judgment.
BB: That’s right.
JB: They don’t necessarily go together. And understanding the concept of duty, that realizing character is based on honesty and avoiding rationalizations. The ability of the human mind to rationalize is overwhelming and, “Well, she won’t mind if I miss her birthday because,” or, “He won’t mind if I don’t get home in time for the graduation, but I have a great opportunity.” No, it’s just… Rationalization is the default for so many people. I think what my dad used to say, he said, “Character, Joey, is built on a thousand little things. And that demonstrates your integrity. It’s no one thing. It’s a thousand things.” He used to say that you’ve got to be a man or a woman of your word, and without that, you don’t possess much. It’s all those basic, basic, basic things, it seems to me.
BB: God, that makes so much sense. In our research, we call those marble jar moments, that trust is not a sweeping moment, it’s just a collection of small marbles over time.
JB: But it really is. Think about the people you genuinely trust. Think about the people you know. I’ve had the privilege of knowing nearly every major world leader in the last 44 years, not because I’m so important, but because I chaired the Foreign Relations Committee for years, I was also a member of the Intelligence Committee all that time, as Vice President, my primary job was to interface with foreign leaders. I guess maybe the way to put it from my perspective is realizing that there’s something bigger than just yourself. Be willing to take risks for the enterprise, whether it’s your family, whether it’s your business, whether it’s your government, whether it’s whatever it is. It’s about not being petty.
BB: You’re speaking my language now, Mr. Vice President. You’re talking about vulnerability and empathy, and I don’t know that you can lead courageously without empathy and vulnerability. Do you think you can?
JB: No, I don’t think you can. The leaders that I’ve admired over my career have been people who have demonstrated both of them. We all have our weaknesses, but not being able to understand where the other woman is coming from, or the other man is coming from, without understanding what pain is, without understanding what people are going through, people always talk about the things that have happened in my life and so on and so forth, but so many people have gone through what I’ve gone through without any of the kind of help I’ve had, without any of the foundation.
JB: My mom used to have an expression, she’d say, “Joey, bravery resides in every heart, and some day it’ll be summoned. Someday it’ll be summoned.” For real. My mom was a really, really, really… She had a backbone like a ram rod, she was really a… Just had so much character, as my dad did. She’d say, “The greatest of all virtues is courage because without it, you couldn’t love with abandon.”
JB: For real. These are things… When I was a kid, I used to stutter pretty badly, and my mother would grab me by the lapels, and look at me, and say, “Joey, look at me. Look at me, Joey. Remember, you’re a Biden. Nobody is better that you, Joey, but you’re no better than anybody else, Joey.”
JB: No, I really mean it. Give you my word…
BB: It’s so powerful.
JB: Give you my word. And my dad’s expression was, “You have to… Everybody, everybody’s entitled to be treated with dignity.” If you got in a fight when you were a kid in my house and someone did something really mean to you, said something ugly to you, you could never say back to them something about them that they could not control, that was beyond their capacity. You could say, “You’re a jerk,” you could say, “You’re this,” but you could never say anything that was true, because it went to the quick of who the person was, and it’s not something they can control, it’s not something…
BB: And it’s shaming. Yeah, it’s so shaming.
JB: By the way it is but think of how it works most times.
BB: Yeah, we see it every day. What do you think your parents would have thought about where we are right now and how shaming and just unkind people are?
JB: My dad would have been just absolutely disgusted, and my mom thought that it was really important to stay engaged. It was always about something bigger than you. When I wrote the book about my son, it was really hard to write about my son Beau who passed away, because I wanted people to know who he was, and I didn’t want anybody feeling sorry for us, because as I said, a lot of people go through that and worse and don’t have the kind of support I had, but I remember him telling our doctor, as he’s going into his last operation, “Doctor, promise me, if I pass away, it’s okay, if I pass away, take care of my dad, Doctor. Take care of my dad.” And that’s kind of how we were all kind of taught, you know what I mean?
BB: Yeah, I do. A lot of love and empathy.
JB: Yeah, because it’s those little, those thousand little acts of kindness that can change where we are now. When everybody tells me, “How do we unify the country?” I say, “Start off by thinking how you treat other people.” When there’s a snowstorm and the older lady lives next door to you, she can’t afford to shovel her sidewalk, go shovel the sidewalk. Go shovel the sidewalk, it’s no big deal. Just little, tiny things that bring people together, that make people realize, “Woah, I guess I matter. I guess I care.” Or when I always say to people when they say, “We’ll never be able to pull things together,” and I point out to them, I said, “When’s the last time you thanked somebody? When was the last time when you went to the supermarket and you had to get something back in the stock room, someone went back, and you said, ‘Really, thank you so much for doing that for me.’”
BB: Yeah, and looked them in the eye when you said it.
JB: Exactly right. I really mean it. Think about it…
BB: I know.
JB: We all want to be valued for what we do.
BB: And be seen and respected, yeah.
JB: Exactly right. Anyways, I’m going on too long, I apologize. [chuckle]
BB: No, you’re right. Are you kidding? You have slid right into my wheelhouse.
JB: [chuckle] My sister’s a gigantic fan of yours, by the way, my sister Valerie. She’s smarter than I am, she’s better-looking, but she’s been on my handlebars on my bike since she’s been three years old. She’s my best friend in the world. But she’s a big fan of yours.
BB: Well, I’ve got to tell you, I am a big believer, one of the tenets of my work around Dare to Lead is, who you are is how you lead, and we can lead from heart or we can lead from hurt. And when we lead from heart and believe, I think, that our job is to serve people, not be served by people, I think it makes a difference.
JB: I think it makes a gigantic… Look, I always say some version of that, and my colleagues, anybody listening to this, they’ve heard me say it a hundred times. The people I trust the most in public life who have an idea, is an idea that is generated in their gut, goes through their heart and they have the intellectual capacity to articulate it. They’re the people. The people intellectually arrive at it without the feeling, but intellectually know this is the right thing to do, they’re good people, but they’re the ones that crack when pressure breaks, when pressure really builds. But the people who it starts in their gut, they’re the people that you can count on and, look, the coin of the realm, still, no matter how bad the policies have gotten in public life, in putting the coalitions together, is still your word, keeping your word.
JB: My staff used to say, when I talked so-and-so into voting for this particular item on the floor of the Senate, and I’d tell him, “I need your vote on this, this is what it will do. But by the way, you should know, is if you vote for it, you’re going to get clobbered by this element of your party.” They’d say, “Why’d you tell him that? Why’d you tell him that?” I told him that because he knows I’m going to be completely, thoroughly honest with him. I’m never going to mislead him. And I think it matters.
BB: Oh, God, I was just going to say, I think that matters. So this is a good segue, I want to talk to you about the pandemic, about COVID. We are so tired and weary, and we’re heading into flu season, and for some reason that’s absolutely mind-boggling to me, we have politicized science and almost demonized it. Tell me what your vision and plan is for moving us through this.
JB: You’re dead right about the demonization of science. I usually end my speeches these days when I’m out saying what I choose, and I choose science over fiction. If you take a look at it, the people who are choosing to ignore the science tend to be people who believe they have the wherewithal to avoid the impacts of the downside of what happens by not pushing the scientific side. For example, one of the things that’s changing is, no matter how much money you have, you can’t build a wall high enough around your estate to keep it from you being affected by climate change. Just can’t do it.
BB: That’s right. That’s right.
JB: No matter how, you can in fact attempt to isolate yourself from disease with a little more efficiency, but not very much. You can’t avoid what’s happening, and people continue to think that they can. One of the things that I think that changed around, I don’t know, I’d say the early 2000s, was that we went into this whole notion of devolution of government. And the devolution of government was all about not wanting to pay taxes, thinking you could do it, you had to wherewithal to take care of yourself. For example, they want all the decisions made locally. That sounds like they really support local control, right? Except that when you have a lot of money, you have a lot of influence, you have a lot of power, you’re much more easily able to sway a city council or a state legislative body, than you are the entire United States Congress representing 50 different points of view based on geography. You’re much less likely to be able to make your weight in fact brought to bear because you have countervailing forces in the national.
BB: That’s right.
JB: And so what happened was, we got into this whole thing about why… Did you ever think you’d see a day, I don’t want us to get into policy, I apologize, but think a day where Republicans were against infrastructure? It used to be Republicans were the ones who wanted to build highways, roads, ports, bridges, airports, attract business and so on. Why have they not supported anything in the last, about 10 years? Why? Well, guess what? It means if it’s done on the national level, they’re going to have to pay taxes. They’re going to have to pay more taxes, and they don’t want any part of that, even though they’re the ones that benefit when people put their businesses where they can get their products to market the quickest. But they don’t want to pay for that because they think somehow they can take care of it and not have to support the national agenda.
JB: And the other thing I’m finding is that how we’ve become awfully regional. And as Democrats and Republicans, we’re a federal system, and the federal system says that we make up for each other’s shortcomings and what we lack. So, I remember having a debate once, when they wanted to get rid of Amtrak, and they said, “Why should I pay for this as a Westerner? Why should my mother pay for taxes to make sure that people can commute in New York City or up or down the East Coast? Why?” And I said, “I’ll send an amendment to the desk,” and the amendment said, “Let’s totally defund Amtrak and totally defund all water projects.” And all of a sudden, there was silence. I said, “Why should my mom pay… You ever fly across the country and you see all those great big cisterns that are in the West and the desert to provide water for the states that don’t have it, that we build, the entire country paid for the Hoover Dam, the entire country. Why should we do that?” That’s about thinking only about yourself, and it’s got to change back. That’s not how we built the country. I’m sorry, I’m getting in too much of policy.
BB: No, it’s important to talk about it. When I’ve seen these regional fights, even around COVID, and I’ve seen these fights, I’m in Houston, I told my husband, who’s a pediatrician, I’m like, “We’re going to die and our death certificate’s going to say, “Death by rugged individualism.”” It’s like, there is this mythology that we don’t need each other, when neuro-biologically, we’re hard-wired to be together.
JB: We are. Bingo. And the other piece of this is, look, the whole reason, in my view, why the appeal is being made as it is, that you’re being a tough guy by not wearing a mask… Is all about wanting to irresponsibly open when you shouldn’t be opening certain things, so the stock market doesn’t take a hit. I’m not joking now. I mean this sincerely.
BB: No, I agree. I believe you and I agree.
JB: And what you do, you go out to get the guys that I grew up with and say, “Are you tough, man? You don’t need a mask, man. Are you tough?” And these guys come out and say, “It’s freedom. Freedom.” Freedom? If you want to be a patriot, the mask you’re putting on is not to protect you, it’s to protect the other guy. It’s a patriotic thing to do. It’s not about you, it’s about being patriotic. It’s about helping the other guy, the other woman. Anyway, I just think, if you notice, everything of late has not been about addition, but about the division.
BB: I think it’s really… It’s important. It’s an interesting segue to the next thing I’d love to get your thoughts on, which is, I’m a fifth generation Texan, and as I look at the world right now, one of the things that as a researcher that’s emerged from my research is this idea that if we run from a hard story in our lives or if we run from a hard history, when we run, those histories and those stories own us. So we have to have the courage to turn and face the story and the history.
BB: Right. And so what’s interesting to me is, how are we going to, in your mind, turn toward a history of enslavement and dehumanization with the Black community? Where will we find the courage to turn toward that and own it so we can write a different ending?
JB: Well, this is really, really, really, I think necessary, but complicated. Look, I got involved in public life as a kid because of civil rights. Not a joke. No, I’m not making myself to be some great star, but we moved down from Scranton, Pennsylvania when Dad lost work, and down to a little town called Claymont, Delaware, it’s a little steel town, my dad was a salesperson. And there were very few African Americans in northeast Pennsylvania.
JB: But moving down to Delaware, we had the eighth highest percentage of African Americans as a population in the whole country, in Delaware. And so, I remember mom used to drive us up with, it used to be the Philadelphia Pike, which everybody in the East Coast knows about I-95, it’s been replaced by I-95, but it’s still there. It was a four-lane access highway that was too dangerous to walk the, essentially, probably, I don’t know, I’m thinking probably a half mile, which we could do up from the apartments we lived in to go to the school I went to. And so, my mom used to drive us up in the morning because she didn’t want us crossing the street there.
BB: And I remember getting out of the car one day and saying, “Mom, why are all those African American kids in that bus that goes by every day, by the school?” I happened to be going to a parochial school at the time, grade school. And she said, “Because they’re not allowed to go to the public school.” And I thought to myself, “Wow. How come that could be? How could that be?” And it was just this whole notion that… My dad’s notion, “Everybody, Joey, everybody is entitled to be treated with respect and dignity, everybody.” And I just… It didn’t calculate at all.
JB: But what’s happened is that I think an awful lot has moved in the direction of the American people have seen, they’ve had the blinders taken off and seen, in the middle of a crisis that we’ve had, the quadruple crises we’re facing, and people have all of a sudden realized, “Wow.” And I think what’s happened is, when I was a kid, I guess I was 15 years old, thereabouts, and Bull Connor and his dogs, and they were siccing them on those ladies in black going to church, and fire hoses on kids, their skin getting ripped off, and it was a black and white TV, but I remember what happened was, in all those states where there were no African Americans, they’d heard about all that was going on, they didn’t believe it until they saw it. And it was like a wake-up call. Dr. King called it the second emancipation. We got out of that when we saw, what everybody saw nationally on that, we got the Civil Rights Act, we got the Voting Rights Act. He called it the second emancipation.
JB: Well, look what happened with George Floyd. People saw a man, callously, with one hand in his pocket, have a knee on a man whose nose was being crushed against the curb, saying, “I can’t breathe,” and asking for his mama, and staying there for eight minutes and 46 seconds until he died. Well, all those cell phones all over America. Guess what? People saw it, and they didn’t really believe that really happened. That’s not who most cops are, but there are enough bad cops out there that that happens. And all of a sudden, people, not only did they march in the United States, they marched in Europe, all over the world.
JB: And so, I think there’s sort of a liberation in exposure. Or for example, I think we should have to learn about what happened in Oklahoma where you had Black Wall Street burned to the ground. And so, I think it’s important we teach history, not in a prescriptive way, from my perspective, but what actually the facts were without also acknowledging that there’s 400 years of racism in the United States of America. That’s what it is, and it’s able to be fixed, and I think most people are beginning to step up to it. People fear what’s different. I want to just start to tell people, “Whoa, wow, I didn’t know that. They did that?” And I just think that it’s exposure and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. And this President is trying to… What’s he had, it’s called, the 1776 project or something, he has? I don’t think he understands what happened in 1776. America was an idea. An idea. We hold these truths to be self-evident. We’ve never lived up to it, but we’ve never walked away from it before. And I just think we have to be more honest, and let our kids know, as we raise them, what actually did happen, acknowledge our mistakes, so we don’t repeat them.
BB: God, this idea of, I’ve never really heard it framed this way, that exposure is liberation.
JB: By the way, I think it is, because most… Look, I refuse to believe… I’m always asked why I’m an optimist in light of my life. Well, I’m an optimist because I think that human nature, given an even shot, they tend to do the right thing. But what happens is, when they don’t know what’s going on, they fear. I remember I went on Meet the Press, and I told the President Obama that if I got asked about homosexuality and gay marriage, I was going to say something, but I wouldn’t go out and push it, because where there is this evolving going on, and I knew where the President was and where I was, but I got asked on Meet the Press, what do I think about same sex marriage, and I said, I told the story about my dad. I remember my dad dropping me off at the City Hall to go in and get an application to be a lifeguard on the east side of Wilmington, in what we used to call the projects, a 95% African American neighborhood, which was… Had about a thousand kids a day come to a public swimming pool.
JB: And as I was getting out of the car at the corner, we called it Rodney Square where there used to be big corporate centers, it was Hercules Corporation, and the DuPont company and others, and I saw these two men dressed in suits lean up and hug each other and kiss each other and go a different direction. I just turned and looked at my dad, I hadn’t seen that before. He said, “Joey, it’s simple, they love each other. It’s simple.” Wasn’t complicated. And the point of the matter is that when I came out and said I support it, marriage including men and men and women and women, everybody went nuts. But I made a bet. The American people were way ahead of everybody. The poll was taken, showing that at that moment, 56% of the American people already had arrived at that position, because all of a sudden people are figuring out, “God, I didn’t know my uncle was gay. I didn’t know my Aunt Mary was. I didn’t know Sally… They’re just like me.”
JB: And so, I guess what I’m trying to say is, I think that the American public are ahead of their political leadership. And the political leadership tends to be timid and afraid to do things that they know in their gut we should be doing, when the American people, by and large, have already moved there.
BB: It’s so interesting. One of the things I say a lot in my work is that people are really hard to hate close up.
JB: That’s exactly right, by the way. That’s exactly right. You look into my heart and you look into my eyes, and you can see, you see yourself many times.
BB: Of course.
JB: Now, some people are not like that, that’s why… Everybody talks about bullies. Well, I’m used to bullies. When you’re a kid who stutters, I’m now… I’m 6’1, I’m 176 pounds, but when I was a kid, I didn’t grow until my… Middle of my sophomore year, into my junior year. I was the runt of the litter, and I’m used to dealing with people that make fun of me. But what I also learned was that the fact is that most bullies are incredibly insecure.
BB: Oh, yeah.
JB: Incredibly insecure. And I think that that’s why we have to understand that we can’t be intimidated by these guys and women, sometimes.
BB: Yeah, because I think their fear can be contagious. Right? And… Yeah, their fear is contagious, and I think bullies can be very good at leveraging fear. And one of the things that I really love about the broad coalitions of people who agree and disagree and have different life experiences, really, is this idea of yours that exposure is liberation. To see me and know me and see that I just wake up and pack lunches and drive carpool and try to get to work on time, just like you, there’s a lot of connection in that, I think.
JB: Well, I do too, I really do. And technology has given us a much wider aperture on the world but made us much more insular.
BB: Oh, God, that’s so counterintuitive and dangerous and true.
JB: I have wonderful grandkids and a great son and daughter who are alive, and when did you ever hear them say that, “Well, my friend got a phone call saying, from her boyfriend or girlfriend, ‘we’re breaking up’.” It’s a hell of a lot easier to do it on the phone than it is… On Zoom or on your cell phone than it is to look somebody in the eye and do it. There’s a lot of depersonalization with the exposure, so I think that’s going to be one of the hardest things that, as a society, as a world, we’re going to have to come to grips with. We know a hell of a lot more about what’s going on inside of Putin’s Russia, but we also find ourselves in a position where it’s almost impersonal what’s happening to people because we are used to distancing ourselves to avoid the crises that we face.
BB: Yeah, it takes courage to show up and connect with people, because it’s… I often say that the broken-hearted are the bravest among us, because they had the courage to love, and so I think when we put ourselves out there and love and connect and be vulnerable…
JB: My sister’s amazed, but you sound like my mom. Remember I told you, she said, “Courage is the greatest of all virtues, because without it you couldn’t love unconditionally.” [chuckle]
BB: That’s right, yeah. I would have liked your mom, for sure.
JB: You would have like my mom. You would have liked… I was one of those guys that had a mom that, not a joke, everybody wished had been their mom. For real.
BB: Yeah. Okay, I’ve got three rapid fire questions for you. Are you ready?
BB: Okay. A snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that really brings you joy. Just a simple picture.
JB: Watching my son and daughter when they see each other, embrace one another and kiss.
BB: Okay. Favorite meal.
JB: I was smart enough to marry Dominic Giacoppa’s daughter. Italian food, spaghetti.
BB: What are you eating with your… Is this spaghetti with Bolognese sauce?
JB: Spaghetti with arrabiata sauce, arrabiata and a little bit of chicken parmesan with a Caprese salad. [chuckle]
BB: Oh, my God, that sounds good. Okay, last one. What’s on your nightstand?
JB: Well, the picture on my nightstand is a picture of my two boys, Beau and Hunt, when they were seven and eight years old, maybe eight and nine years old, holding their sister who just came home from the hospital and just was born, Ashley. It’s on my nightstand, along with a picture of my mom and dad when they were younger.
BB: Mr. Vice President, I am so grateful for the time you’ve spent with us. Thank you for sharing your vision.
JB: Thank you. It’s been an honor and I really think that what you’re talking about, not being afraid to open up and know one another. And by the way, nobody, nobody, nobody can stop us. But one thing you’ve got to know, also in a book I’ve just been re-reading and that is by Jonathan Alter, The First Hundred Days of Roosevelt, there’s no such thing as a guaranteed democracy.
BB: That’s right.
JB: It has to be fought for every time. If you read just the first chapter, talk about how guys like Walter Lippmann were telling Roosevelt, “We have to have a dictatorship to get it right.” About how things… There’s nothing automatic about this. We’ve got to earn it every single generation. And I used to hear that all the time and think, “That’s not true. We have it permanently.” No, see what’s happening now.
BB: I think we’re living in the evidence that it is not only a fight that we have to stay in, but it’s a fight worth fighting.
JB: Yeah. And it’s worth fighting because, it sounds melodramatic, but our future and our democracy depends on it. And by the way, I’m not making myself out to be some kind of savior, I don’t mean it that way, I just… The institutions matter. The only way we can get things done when people say, “You can’t unify the country, Joe,” well, let me tell you something. If we can’t, we’re in real trouble, because the only way in a democracy you can get things done is with consensus. You don’t have to change principle, but you have to at least listen to the other person’s position. Compromise has become a dirty word. It’s not. It’s not.
BB: No, it’s courage.
JB: Yep, you got it. Last question, last point. Every time I’d walk out on my Grand-pop Finnegan’s house up in Scranton, for real, he’d yell, “Joey, keep the faith.” My grandmother, when she was alive, she’d yell out, “No, Joey. Spread it. Go spread the faith, kid. Keep it going.” No, for real. “So, go get ’em, kid.” There’s so many women you’re inspiring. And as that old expression goes, “It’s the women that hold up half the sky.”
BB: I love that. I do love that.
JB: We cannot, we cannot survive if women in our society aren’t fully, thoroughly, totally integrated into everything we do. I mean, for real. Well, anyway, I hope I get to meet you some day and I hope, if occasion permits, you’d allow me to come back on your show one day.
BB: I would love it. Thank you. Thanks for being with us. Okay, take care.
JB: Thank you. Alright. Bye-bye.
BB: I just want to say thank you all again for joining me, and I hope… I hope the conversation on power was meaningful. I hope it gave you an additional lens or a tool to use to look at the world through. I think it’s really important, as much as we dislike the word power, I think it’s important. I hope you enjoyed the conversation with Vice President Biden. I did, actually, I’ll just be really candid with you, it was an important conversation to me. And just to be really honest with you, I think the last four years under the Trump administration has been a demonstration of kind of white male power over. And it made me nervous, having another white guy who’s been in politics for a long time as the alternative. But the issue is not white or male or power, because, you know, I’m raising a white male son and I was raised by a white male dad, and my husband is… I don’t know, he’s Mirish, half Irish, half Mexican, so…
BB: But it’s not about white male power, it’s about white male power over, it’s about any power over. But the last four years has specifically felt like white male power over making a last stand, like a last-ditch effort to maintain that. And last stands are dangerous and scary and the ever-increasing capacity for cruelty and dehumanization from the Trump administration is not something I can get behind from anyone. Certainly not again, not four more years of that, but I wanted to have this conversation with Vice President Biden to figure out what the core belief is. And I love that his mom, Catherine Jean Finnegan said, “Bravery resides in every heart and that someday it will be summoned.” And I think it’s being summoned right now in all of us, and I think she was right.
BB: If you’re interested in understanding more about power and leadership and what we’ve learned, we have the first Dare to Lead episode of The Dare to Lead podcast launched on Monday of this week. It’s exclusively on Spotify, but you can listen for free and we’re going to give you the first full episode of that next week on Unlocking Us, so you can download it, see if it’s your thing. Our brave hearts are being summoned. Please make a voting plan, think through what you want for yourself, think through what you want for your families, for your careers, for your job, for your community. Hang in there, walk with courage, vote. And as always, stay awkward, brave, and kind.
BB: And I will be back next week with more Dare to Lead podcasts and more Unlocking Us. Dare to Lead on Monday, Unlocking Us on Wednesdays. Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, it’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, Weird Lucy Production, and by Cadence13. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo. Thank y’all.
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