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Mike Erwin
December 5, 2022

Leadership Is a Relationship, Part 1 of 2

with Mike Erwin

On this episode of Dare to Lead

This is the first of two episodes with Mike Erwin, the founder and CEO of the Character and Leadership Center and the co-author of Leadership Is a Relationship, a timely book that details why leaders who prioritize relationships are more effective. It’s a really beautiful conversation about the seven functions of relationship-building and the importance of prioritizing our relationships as people and also as leaders.

Show notes

Leadership Is a Relationship: How to Put People First in the Digital World, by Mike Erwin and Willys Devoll

Leadership Is a Relationship: How to Put People First in the Digital World, by Mike Erwin and Willys DeVoll

Leadership Is a Relationship is an insightful collection of interviews with leaders who have succeeded by prioritizing the well-being of other people. Featuring fresh stories from leaders like Olympic legend Kerri Walsh Jennings, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald, and visionary principal Dr. Virginia Hill, the book shows how you too can become a relationship-based leader and thrive in our chaotic, digital world. By highlighting role models from different careers, backgrounds, skill sets, and schools of thought, Leadership Is a Relationship offers readers an inspiring antidote to one of the most serious—and underreported—crises of our era: the damage that digital distractions have done to our personal relationships. It also shows how anyone, regardless of title or circumstance, can step into leadership and improve people’s lives.

Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, by Raymond M. Kethledge and Mike Erwin


Barrett Guillen: Hi, everyone. This is Barrett Guillen, and welcome to Dare to Lead. I wanted to let you know that the Mike Erwin podcast was so amazing that we decided to split it into two parts. So this is Part 1. Part 2 will be out next week. And I’m going to kick it over to Brené to take us from here.

Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. Today, I’m talking to Mike Erwin, who is the founder and CEO of the Character & Leadership Center, Team Red, White & Blue and The Positivity Project. He’s also the co-author of Lead Yourself First, which focuses on how solitude strengthens people’s character and their ability to lead with clarity, balance and conviction. We’re talking today about his new book, Leadership Is a Relationship, which is such a… It’s a really beautiful book about kind of seven functions of relationship building and whether you’re a leader or you’re thinking about your family, you’re thinking about friends, it’s a really beautiful conversation about the importance of prioritizing our relationships as people and also as leaders. I’m glad y’all are here. Before we get started, let me tell you a little bit about Mike.

BB: He is a leader who has dedicated his life to serving the nation and empowering people to build positive relationships and become more resilient in community. And I met Mike, how long ago, Barrett?

BG: Well, I think he said it was eight years when we did the 5K. So maybe…

BB: Ten years, 10, 12 years ago at West Point, when I went to do some leadership work with the cadets and then met Mike and spent some time with Mike, and we’ve been friends since. I’ve done some work with Team Red, White & Blue, the veterans group, with him. And he’s just an incredibly dynamic, smart, funny, loving person. Mike is a 2002 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics. He was commissioned as an intelligence officer. He served three combat tours with the 1st Cavalry Division and 3rd Special Forces Group Airborne. And he has earned two Bronze Star Medals from these tours. He attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a master’s degree in positive psychology. He continues to proudly serve the nation as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, assigned to the U.S. Military Academy as an assistant professor.

BB: He lives on a 32-acre homestead outside of Fort Bragg, North Carolina with his wife, Genevieve, and their five children and a dairy cow that I was…

BG: Moooo.

BB:  Thank you, Barrett. That was Barrett mooing. I was really excited because when we first came on the podcast, he was like, “There’s a cow and I can’t stop it from mooing. I don’t know what to do.” So I was really excited about it, but never got to hear it. He had his wife go move hay or something, which was kind of a bummer because we were excited about the sound effects. Let’s jump into the conversation.


BB: Mike, welcome to Dare to Lead.

Mike Erwin: Right. It is so great to be here. I’m so excited for the conversation.

BB: Me too. And I have to say that before we started recording, Mike gave us fair warning that we could hear some cows and I’m really, really hoping. Tell me where you are that we might run into some mooing.

ME: So, I live right outside Fort Bragg, North Carolina, about an hour south of Raleigh. And about three years ago, we moved out to a 32-acre homestead and it’s my wife’s lifelong dream to get a dairy cow. And so we now have our own dairy cow and it comes with a fair amount of mooing depending on how hungry we are.


ME: As I learned.

BB: Okay. Are there other things? Do you say farm or do you say homestead?

ME: It’s a homestead just because it’s really, we primarily provide for ourselves versus farming tends to imply that you’re producing for others or for sale. And so it’s just more for our family.

BB: Got it.

ME: But yeah, it’s been quite the humbling journey.

BB: What else do you have besides a cow?

ME: So, we have goats, pigs, ducks, chickens, turkeys, bees, a vegetable garden and an orchard, so….

BB: Wow.

ME: Yeah, it’s been amazing. It’s the old, “Old McDonald had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-o” like that. That’s the running joke with a lot of my friends. They like to jokingly call me Farmer Mike now.

BB: Wow. Have you learned more than you ever thought you would possibly learn?

ME: Oh my goodness. Every single day is problem solving and learning new things about how complicated it is, to whether you’re raising vegetables or fruits or bees or animals. There’s just so much that can go wrong every single day and how you approach that has a huge impact on your attitude and on your ability to solve the problems that come up every single day.

BB: Wow. I can’t think of a person better suited to do that than you actually.

ME: Yeah.

BB: All right. We are talking about Leadership Is a Relationship. It’s your latest book, how to put people first in the digital world. God, this is a timely book right now. Tell us about what led you to writing this book. Tell us the story that kind of brought you here and brought this book to us, thankfully.

ME: Absolutely. Well, before that, I’ve just got two quick things. One is, I remember the last time I had an hour-long conversation with you, it was very deep. It was, I believe you were researching Daring Greatly. And you warned me about it and you said, “be ready for an emotional hangover the next day.” And I literally had the most emotional hangover the next day.


ME: I am so excited to be, again, in another chance to talk with you for a full hour. This is a real treat. And the other thing before getting into the book, I just can say is that, super grateful for you giving me an invitation here to have this conversation. A mutual acquaintance, someone we know, one of my mentors, Jim Collins, I know he’s been on your podcast. He once told me something that really stuck out and still it’s with me all the time. And that he says, “Not all moments in time are equal, and you need to know that and realize that.” And for me, and for the work that I’ve done for the past 12, 13 years, this is definitely one of those moments, a chance to elevate the conversation about something that I learned back in 2009 in grad school at the University of Michigan, that relationships are the foundation of our lives.

ME: And I’ll never forget you telling me about a decade ago that… About a decade, I think, before that you had this goal, this vision to create a nationwide conversation about the power of vulnerability, and safe to say you’ve done that. And while I don’t necessarily think that a conversation will do that in just one day, this is a really big deal and a big opportunity. And for the past 12 years, I’ve been really working in the field of positive psychology to better understand that while relationships are wildly complicated, that investing in them and investing in other people, it brings the highest return on investment to our success and to our happiness, especially when we find ourselves in leadership positions. So thank you so much for inviting me here today.

BB: Yeah, I believe that, and I believe in… I think about our relationship. When we had the very daunting conversation about Daring Greatly, were we at West Point?

ME: We were, we were. It was one of your two visits to West Point. And it was one of those moments where Chris Oxendine and some of the other people that we brought in to speak with you, everyone, it was just such a deep, powerful set of conversations that unfolded right there on that ground.

BB: Oh. Hard. Yeah. I think about what we talked about and the courage in that room and the vulnerability in that room and the trust unearned and the generosity. Yeah, it really shifted my research, it changed the trajectory of my career. So, I don’t know that we have really anything without relationships.

ME: Yeah.

BB: And I think the people in that room shared with me because of their relationship with you.

ME: Yeah. I think that now that you say that, that’s super powerful and super humbling, but they did. They’ve had a lot of trust in you and confidence in you to be able to take their powerful stories of loss and trauma and what they experienced in combat zones and in their own lives. And to not just honor that, but then also to offer it as a contribution to the similar work that you were doing in that moment on these topics.

BB: Yeah, relationships. So, as I was reading the book, I could definitely see, I could definitely not even just see or cognitively understand, but feel culmination. Because I’ve tracked your work, I’ve read your work. You and I have talked a lot about solitude and your first book. When I read this, I thought this is where he’s been pointing for a long time.

ME: Totally.

BB: Is that true?

ME: Absolutely. Going back to your question that I just had to kind of get a couple of those things I wanted to share at the very outset, but going back to your question with “where did this originate from, where did it start?” And so, when I got to the University of Michigan in 2009, I was fresh off my third rotation out of Iraq or Afghanistan. And I started studying positive psychology. And the first thing I did is I actually took the undergraduate class, even though I was a graduate student. I took the undergraduate class that Dr. Chris Peterson was teaching. And he was the renowned Golden Apple award winning professor in Michigan. And I was able to take that class.

ME: And while there’s a lot of things that he shared about positive psychology and about character strengths, he kept on pointing everything back to relationships and how important they are in our lives and that the research has clearly showed that without relationships, life is just so much less rich. Yes, at times less stressful, but it’s less rich. So that’s really where the seeds were planted with the book. And I actually worked on a paper in one of my graduate school classes titled Leadership as a Relationship. And that was the beginnings of it. So, 2010 is when the seeds were planted for the idea of this book. And it really wasn’t until almost a decade later that I picked it up and started to work on it in earnest.

BB: So, tell us how your life experiences, your building organizations, what made you go back to it? What experience brought you back to Leadership Is a Relationship?

ME: Sure. So, when I was in grad school in 2010, I founded our first organization, Team Red, White and Blue. That you know well. It’s still hard to believe, but it was eight years ago that you hosted a bunch of our leaders in an incredible transformational seminar for Team Red, White & Blue, when we were still such a young organization. I’m still so grateful to you for doing that. I founded that organization in 2010. And the core idea there was, “how do we help connect military veterans to other people in their community?” Essentially, to set the stage, to set the table to help them to build new relationships in their post-military life. And so, the idea of relationships was a part of Team Red, White & Blue. And as you probably remember, in October of 2012, a decade ago, Dr. Chris Peterson passed away suddenly by heart attack. And it hit me really hard. And like a lot of us, when we lose influential people who shape us in our lives, we think of, well, how can I carry this person’s legacy forward? How can I ensure that what they cared about so much and we’re working on doesn’t pass with them.

ME: And so that really, again, planted new seeds for me, as a couple of years later, I founded The Positivity Project with one of my West Point comrades. And so, both of those organizations at the core are about people and fostering connection and about building relationships. The Positivity Project is in about 850 schools across America right now. And the mission is to empower America’s youth to build positive relationships and become their best selves. But again, it keeps pointing back to relationships. And so, whether it’s military veterans or children, the goal of helping to drive connection has been just a foundational part of the work that I’ve done. And so, when I started thinking about…

ME: Because, as you know, after you write one book, sure, there’s always thoughts of people who have got lots of ideas and they say, “Well, when’s the next book coming?”

BB: Yeah, yeah.

ME: And I really didn’t have any thoughts about a second book for a while. But it became pretty clear to me in 2018 that all this work, this decade of work focusing on relationships in these different organizations is something that I could really distill down to and then really build out into a more detailed work that speaks to the power of relationships for leaders.

BB: I love the format of this book. It’s so straightforward, but it builds, and it makes so much sense. So, I have an idea. You say that there are seven key areas that we can really grow and develop when we lead with relationships. So, what I thought I would do is take us through those seven areas with one of, what I thought was a real, learning, powerful kind of, grab-me-by-the-shoulders quote from that. And maybe you could talk about that area. How does that sound?

ME: Yeah. That sounds great.

BB: Okay. And then I’ve got a lot of big questions.

ME: Good.

BB: At the end, of course, you know.

ME: Yes.

BB: Okay. So, the first key area where leading with relationships has huge benefits is accountability.

ME: Yep.

BB: You write, “Brilliant leaders find contextually relevant and productive ways to inject accountability into their environments. They know that accountability works better when it happens within the context of a strong relationship.” I feel like accountability happens outside of relationships all the time. And tell us about that. Tell us about accountability within the context of a strong relationship. What does that mean to you?

ME: So, first of all, accountability, I think it often has such a negative connotation associated with it. “I’m going to hold you accountable. We’re going to be accountable.” And I think the big thing we discovered by interviewing all these different leaders across different sectors was that accountability is more effective and it’s more productive when there is a relationship there. So, here’s a story I tell. If I’m in a grocery store, and some stranger comes up to me and let’s say my kids are misbehaving, right? And they come up to me and say, “Hey, your kids are really unruly.” Versus if I hear that from my mom, or my brother or someone who I already have a relationship with, that just hits so differently.

BB: Yeah.

ME: And so, I agree that there is a lot of people I think who use accountability as something that is not tied to relationships and they very much are, “Hey, my job is to hold people accountable.” But when we talk about leadership and we talk about how important it is for leaders to set a vision, to inspire, to connect, that happens often through the power of those relationships that they build. And I think the same thing applies for holding people accountable. And we talk so much about having difficult conversations. Some of the most difficult conversations we have in our lives, especially in leadership roles, are when people are underperforming.

ME: And not many people are waking up saying, “How can I mess up today?” Most people are trying to do the right thing. They’re trying to get their job done and to make contributions. And sometimes those accountability conversations just need to happen. And I keep pointing back to the importance of, when a leader invests in relationships, he or she is going to be able to have those accountability conversations in a much more productive way than if they feel like it’s an attack or it’s, “Hey, you don’t care about me. You’re just trying to push me harder so that we can win more or succeed more.” And that has a very different feel, both emotionally and cognitively, when the person is on the receiving end of that difficult conversation.

BB: What do you think we don’t understand about accountability? What do you think some of the mythology about accountability is? Because I found contextually relevant and productive ways to inject accountability into the environment. Can you give me an example?

ME: I think so much of this ties into the nuance of the situation you find yourself in. So, an example would just be if someone’s underperforming, but they’ve got a struggle going on in their personal life, and it could be a whole host of things. How you have that accountability conversation needs to be different, knowing and respecting the fact that there are factors outside the work environment that are causing distractions or getting in the way of this person performing at their peak or their very best.

BB: That’s right.

ME: So, I think that’s where the contextualization and the nuance comes in that when you really get to know people… And look, I know there’s differing views on this. Some people might feel like, “Hey, work is work. And I don’t want to share too much about my personal life. And I don’t want you to know too much about my personal life.” But I really feel like part of the thesis of the book is to make the case that there’s actually a return on investment, if you will, for leaders to invest the time to get to know their people. And not just their birthday, but you get to know more of their story, you get to know more of who they are, because that will give you a window and some more insight into when they are struggling, they are underperforming and you do need to have that conversation of, “Hey, I know things are hard right now, but the whole team is counting on you to keep moving this ball down the field.”

BB: Yeah. And what does support look like for me, in order to do that?

ME: Totally.


BB: I like that you write, “Exhibiting accountability over time is a gateway to trust. When we see someone acting with accountability, we gain the evidence we need to trust them.”

ME: Yeah.

BB: So, tell me about the leader. Tell me about what happens… You think… You’ve been part of very high performing teams, right?

ME: Yep.

BB: Tell me what happens in a team, when it’s not you, but one of your teammates. When someone clearly needs to be held accountable, but is not being held accountable, what happens to our trust in that leader?

ME: Oh, absolutely. All of us can think of lots of examples of how this plays out, because it is difficult sometimes to have those conversations with people, right? It’s not enjoyable. I jokingly often will ask, when giving talks or working with people, “Anyone here enjoy having difficult conversations?”

BB: Zero.

ME: Then once in a while, there is one masochist who puts their hand up.


ME: But no, you’re exactly right. The ability to trust people, especially in a team environment is so critical to be able to get the work done right. Without the trust, and that’s when we have the micromanagement, and we have the second guessing of what’s going on and all these negative things that get in the way of progress and performance. And so, I think that when we just let someone who is not bringing their best self… And again, it doesn’t mean that you need to hold people’s feet to the fire and use all these analogies that we hear people use. No, it can be a very actually productive and kind conversation. Accountability doesn’t need to be as rough as people often think it is. They think of accountability as like someone chewing someone else’s butt and be like, “Hey, you’re a… ” It really is, I think a lot more nuanced than that.

ME: But to answer your question specifically, yeah, you lose trust with people because they will say it like, “Hey, if you care so much about the mission and where we’re going, and you know that this person is underperforming and you’re not even willing to talk about it or have the conversation, you’re just going to try to pretend like it’s not happening?” That’s really hard to establish trust with people.

BB: Yeah, I see that all the time, and it’s hard. Okay, let’s do the second one. Oh, man, this is a huge topic. Wow. Forgiveness.

ME: Yeah.

BB: You write… I’m on page 41. “A culture of forgiveness often yields a culture of bravery. When people know that they’re loved, cared for and supported, even when they fail, they’re free to try audacious, creative and risky things.”

ME: Yep.

BB: You write about a couple of people. Your storytelling is so good and your examples are so good. Let’s talk about Dr. Virginia Hill.

ME: Yeah. Dr. Virginia Hill. She’s a phenomenal principal that I’ve gotten to know over the past six years through The Positivity Project in Pittsburgh, absolute firebreather of a leader, but just so emotional, a big fan of your work. She talked about this, like in her school where there were so many challenges when she stepped into this very challenging leadership environment, right? And where people often, if they don’t feel like they had the permission to fail or to make mistakes, then they’re much less likely to try the kinds of big and bold things that you need when you’re talking about…

BB: For sure.

ME: “Hey, we are way behind in terms of getting our kids to a reading level or getting their behavior to a place where we know they can be.” And so, she really talked about, forgiveness is something that’s on the daily. This is, you’ve got to be as a leader in certain environments to be willing to forgive, knowing that people are going to make mistakes because they’re trying big and audacious things. And I found the conversation with her to just be so powerful in that regard.

BB: I like 25 quotes underlined in this chapter because this is hard. I think this is hard.

ME: Very hard.

BB: One of your squared, like you have these big lessons that are kind of squared off and in callout boxes, which I love because I need to be hit over the head with some of this stuff. So it’s like, I feel like Mike is tapping me on the shoulder saying, “Hey, Brené, this is the lesson here on this page, okay?” It’s very helpful for me. “Sometimes the greatest exercise of power is the choice to forgive rather than punish.”

ME: Yeah. It’s like you said, so hard. I think about the character strengths. And for me, sadly, forgiveness is like number 22 out of 24. I’m not proud of that. That’s just being honest. It’s something that some people do much more naturally, but very few people find forgiveness easy. When you look at character strength profiles, very few. Do they even get into the top 10?

BB: Really?

ME: I think it’s a very challenging thing for us to do as humans. One of the most powerful quotes that I’ve ever seen about forgiveness is that life becomes easier when you learn to forgive without ever receiving the apology. And when I’ve shared that on social media in the past, it just hits people so hard. And I think it hits in this place where people are like, “Sometimes you deserve the apology, but you’re not going to get it.” And the ability to forgive, to move beyond that. And whether it’s saying, “Hey, maybe this person doesn’t know that they hurt me,” maybe it’s just that they don’t think it was a big deal or there’s a whole host of reasons there. But the idea to, and the ability to be able to forgive and move beyond the transgressions and the offenses and the hurt, if you can find your way to there, it’s an incredible place to be in.

ME: Virginia… And we also profiled an incredible story of a retired three-star general who at the time was the young officer in the military. But Colin Powell tells a powerful story about this, right? Vietnam, when he should have been punished for losing his nine-millimeter and he was forgiven and how that changed the rest of his entire military career and life. So, history is littered with so many examples of people who have been forgiven and it changes their lives forever. And for me, that was just a big lesson from interviewing those two incredible leaders.

BB: Now I want to share a story with you. I want to get your feedback on it. It was like one of the biggest moments of my life. So, I’m at church and Joe Reynolds, the Dean of our church was giving a lesson after church. The kids go off to Sunday school and the adults go into… I guess we’ve got Sunday school too, but Sunday hardass school is what I call it, because he’s always talking about really hard things.


BB: And there’s certainly a, I’m Episcopalian, so there’s certainly a resonance in a Christian narrative with this. But he said that in order for forgiveness to happen, especially when there’s a big betrayal, he said, something’s got to die. And it was so crazy because I had spent… Forgiveness was one in The Gifts of Imperfection that I took it out because right before we went to publication, I did a focus group with rabbis, and they really turned some of my ideas upside down about forgiveness and it challenged the data. So, I was like, “I just don’t know enough to put this in there. I just don’t, nothing’s saturated. Everything is all over the board.”

BB: I can definitely think about personal examples of forgiveness where it’s very easy for me to point to what had to die. And often it’s an expectation that has to die or… Joe, Father Reynolds was telling the story of how he was counseling a couple and there was an infidelity and trust had to die and then be rebuilt. So, there’s kind of a rebuilding and a renewal. But I think sometimes at work, I’ve thought about this in a couple of cases where I thought, “what has to die right now?” If that’s true, if for forgiveness, something has to die. And sometimes, what I’ve experienced is expectations of perfection. And that’s a good thing to kill off actually.

ME: Yeah, that’s great. That’s deep insight.

BB: Do you know what I mean?

ME: Totally.

BB: But that’s a good thing to kill off probably and or expectations of something being flawless or expectations that I can go up on social media three or four times a week with 14 million people and make everybody happy.

ME: Right.

BB: But I’d love to get your reaction about that. There’s some grief attached to forgiveness sometimes.

ME: Yeah, that hits hard. That analysis you just gave right there is really, really powerful. When talking to people, forgiveness is one of the ones we had to kind of dig to find people willing to talk about it.

BB: Oh yeah, for sure.

ME: Because this is one of the things… And the joke that authors write books that they need to read, right? This is one of the things people… People talk about how important forgiveness is. We know how important it is, but boy, is it difficult to do. And that analysis there of “something has to die,” that’s deep. And that’s helpful, it’s helpful for me just hearing you say that in terms of how to conceptualize it in my own mind.

BB: Yeah, I started thinking a lot of that because I was just reading the takeaways from this chapter on page 41. “Forgiveness isn’t just something we do when we’ve been wronged. It’s much more powerful when we infuse it into our relationship and plans, however well they’re going. A culture of forgiveness often yields a culture of bravery.” This is the quote that I read. It’s just something about grace in here, right?

ME: Totally. Absolutely. And you think about it, how generally good… Here’s the interesting thing about forgiveness too, Brené. We see it’s that this is nearly a top character strength for lots and lots of kids and often teachers. Because kids will tend to forgive, younger kids, they tend to forgive each other like, “Hey, you said this” and an hour or 10 minutes later, they’ve completely forgotten about it and they’re not even thinking about it. I see this even with my own children. When I lose my temper with them or be frustrated, they’ve forgiven me like that. [snaps fingers] And so I think about, why is it that so often children can do this so well, and often that we as adults can do it with younger kids well. But as people get older, that we get stingier and stingier with that grace, and I don’t know the answer to that question. But I think about it a lot.

BB: Okay, I do have this question for you, just what you think about it. Do you think forgiving others is hard for us? Because we are slow to meet our own failures and setbacks and disappointments with grace?

ME: Absolutely. Yes. That is absolutely spot on, from my view. And it’s often the things that we’re working with on our own ends that, I think, makes it so often for us to be able to forgive others, and I could not agree more.

BB: Yeah, because I think a lot about kind of the crippling nature of perfectionism and shame and kind of shame self-talk, and how the leaders that I talked to that wrestle with that the most are the least forgiving with the people around them. Yeah, and I mean that, “Researcher heal thyself,” but I get it.

ME: That’s really insightful.

BB: All right. Resilience.

ME: Yes.

BB: Oh my god, this may be my favorite quote in the book. This is such a beautiful, it’s so poetic. “Every story of resilience begins in darkness. Without grief, strife and frustration, there could be no resilience. It’s our response to suffering.”

ME: Yep.

BB: Talk to me about Michigan basketball’s aviation accident.

ME: Oh, geez, this is such a fascinating story for people out there who might have heard of it before. But if not, you can read these fascinating pieces, Brené, but I did leadership work as a graduate student when I was there with coach John Beilein, and stayed in touch. He actually brought the staff out to West Point one year. So, I stayed in very close touch with him. But they were going to play and they were a bubble team. They were basically having a decent year; they were probably not going to make the tournament. And it’s a snowy day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the airplane is taking off to the Big Ten tournament, and it doesn’t get lift. And so, the pilot goes into panic mode, “Hey, we’ve got to stop this.” The plane basically slows down just enough where the end of it kind of careens over into the ravine, but no one’s hurt, thankfully.

ME: And Coach Beilein, who is known and revered for being a great tactical coach, and everyone sees him as being a really good X’s and O’s kind of leader. In this moment, and then throughout the next couple of days, he basically turns to the team and says, “Hey, if you guys don’t want to go, I totally get it. And the players came together and were like, “Coach, we need to go.” And they went and played the next day. They played the game in their practice jerseys because their uniforms were stuck in the airplane, that they couldn’t get out from the accident. But the most powerful story that came in there, and then they make this incredible run, they win the Big Ten tournament, they go all the way, and they lose to Villanova in the national championship game.

ME: But what they did is, there was this moment in a game when they were winning, and then they started to lose. And he pulled it together. And he didn’t say anything to them about, “Hey, we’re going to draw this play up, we’re going to run this.” He came together, and he just looked at them all and said, “We’ve been through an awful lot these past three days, guys. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could pull this thing out?” And just a totally human moment, a moment of… The answer here is not the X’s and O’s and telling people what they need to do. It’s reestablishing that connection with him and with each other. And it ignited a spark, and they went on this incredible stretch and then won the game. But there was just such power in that story. For me to hear someone who again, people often think about “Coach, you’re always barking out and talking to players and, ‘Do this, do that.'” And here he is in the huddle that… No one knew, there was no cameras on this. This is something that he shared with us. And just said, “Wouldn’t this be awesome if we could pull this thing out?” And it just completely changed the mindset of the entire team in that moment.

BB: I have goosebumps. I mean, yeah. Let me ask you this. I’m looking at resilience and I’m going to my big lesson, because you helped me find it. I’m on page 58. “One big lesson, Brené, reread this twice.” “Resilience doesn’t have to be about responding to one particular setback. Strong relationships can help us stay resilient in a variety of challenges, so long as we face them together.” You talk a lot about resilience being a function of healthy thriving groups. You say, favorite learning in the book, “We are most resilient in community.”

ME: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that there’s a big misunderstanding that a lot of people have that… And there are instances when people can sort of just power through on their own and bounce back from that major adversity. But think about when you lose someone, what is it that gets you through? It’s your family and your friends who are there for you, writing cards and cooking meals and sending flowers and sitting there. If you try to go it alone, when you’re facing adversity, especially major adversity, I don’t know how you make it. It’s the community, it’s the relationships and especially within a team. Everything from when you miss your quarterly goals from a profit standpoint to a deployment scenario to a sports team to a school, every environment where there are leaders. I don’t know how you can be resilient without the focus on connection and relationship between people within that organization. I just don’t.

BB: Yeah, it’s one thing I thought about when I was reading this, is the importance of employee resource groups. Groups that get together who have struggles because of a lack of equity or inclusivity or diversity and belonging and how important those employee resource groups are and how the people who lead them and run them, it’s a big issue for me, should get paid and have time to do that because…

ME: It’s your duty.

BB: Yeah, it is in service of people, but it’s also equally in service of the organization because that community that those are built… Resilience absolutely happens in community. And I do believe when we look at individuals, and I just think about this as a social worker, that we always talk about resilience in terms of wraparound services, how many community members and can we wrap around this person, the relationships, when we look for resilience in an individual, we’re bankrupting the term of resilience by definition in my mind.

ME: A hundred percent. The idea of the resilience is not something you build on your own. That’s one of the things that really sticks out with me, that thought, it’s you build it with other people. And we see this from the time you join the military, they fostered this mindset of resilience from the beginning, but you’re going through basic training together. It’s all about learning how to rely upon people to your left and your right. And while we talk about that in the military, it applies to, and it should apply to any and every organization out there because when you can lock arms with and you can look to people around you, and you know that, hey, if things hit the fan here, things aren’t going well, that we’re going to have each other’s back and whether… Any environment, this is something that leaders need to do.

BB: Yeah, no, I think that’s right.


BB: That’s it, really, y’all. This is it. Relationships. Embrace the suck. They’re hard, but you can’t give up on people because we’re all we have. What are you going to do? Just you and the dairy cow, not going to work. You can find all of Mike’s books wherever you like to buy books. We’ll put links to everything on the episode page. Also, how you can find Mike some of his papers are on We are grateful that you’re here with us. Love, love and stability. I’ll take both. Part 2 of the series will be here next week on Dare to Lead. Stay awkward, brave and kind, y’all.

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 Tristan McNeil and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound designed by Tristan McNeil and Andy Waits and the music is by The Suffers.


© 2022 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2022, December 5). Brené with Mike Erwin on Leadership Is a Relationship, Part 1 of 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.