Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston's Graduate School of Social Work, and she's dedicated her career to the study of such topics as vulnerability, empathy, courage and shame. Her 2010 TEDxHouston talk on The Power of Vulnerability has over 16 million views as of this writing, and even though I've seen it myself nearly a dozen times I continue to find it inspiring and insightful.
While Brown's message resonates with such a large audience because of the universality of her themes, she talks about vulnerability and empathy in a way that I believe has specific relevance for leaders, which is why I often make use of her work with my coaching clients and MBA students at Stanford. Here's the key passage in Brown's 2010 talk, in which she describes findings from her research on the extent to which different people feel love and belonging in their lives:
[Something that people who have a strong sense of love and belonging] had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating... They just talked about it being necessary...
The problem is--and I learned this from the research--that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. (Laughter) I don't want to feel these... You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
So to fully experience positive emotions, we have to be open to our negative emotions. We have to resist the urge to numb ourselves and cultivate the ability to be vulnerable without feeling compelled to protect ourselves. We have to develop a sense of comfort with our discomfort.
These concepts are of critical importance to leaders, who must not only manage their own emotions, but who also have a significant impact on the emotions of everyone around them (for better and for worse). Emotions are literally contagious--we sense them in others, pick them up and pass them on--and we're even more sensitive to the emotions of leaders and others we view as having high status.
A leader who can leverage this dynamic effectively has a tremendous competitive advantage. They can acknowledge negative emotions (both their own and others) and manage or make use of them in a way that's healthy and productive, rather than A) seeking to repress or ignore them or B) letting them spiral out of control. And they can also more fully sense and express positive emotions (both their own and others), which can be a powerful source of influence and motivation.
Brown's work on empathy is equally relevant here. Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging," but empathy, she notes, is "the antidote to shame,” and in a discussion in 2007, she explores this relationship further:
If you think about connection on a continuum...anchoring [one] end of of that continuum is empathy. It is what moves us toward deep, meaningful relationship. On the other side of the continuum is shame. It absolutely unravels our relationships and our connections with other people... Empathy is about being vulnerable with people in their vulnerability.
Again, a leader who can harness these dynamics enjoys a powerful advantage. We all experience some form of shame on a regular basis in organizational life, ranging from mild embarrassment to more profound remorse to true feelings of deep shame, and all of these emotions leave us feeling vulnerable. A leader who can meet vulnerability with empathy, who can feel compassion for themselves and for others in the wake of setbacks and mistakes, will be able to build connections and improve their working relationships at the most difficult moments and turn crises into learning experiences.
I'm not suggesting that leaders should fail to hold themselves and others accountable when things go wrong, but our discomfort with shame and the vulnerability it generates often lead us to respond to setbacks in ways that actually undermine accountability--we distance ourselves from failures or hide the evidence or deny that anything's wrong at all. Leaders who truly want to learn from mistakes and hold themselves and others accountable must respond to vulnerability and shame with empathy and compassion.
And yet a fundamental dilemma is that leadership roles constantly generate feelings of vulnerability, but we typically condition leaders to hide their vulnerabilities at all costs. This is why I believe it's so important that Stanford's new MBA curriculum emphasizes leadership development through experiential learning and emotional intelligence, it's why I talk so much about emotions with leaders in my coaching practice, and it's why I try to step more fully into my own vulnerability, even--especially--when I don't want to.
I'm realistic about the difficulty of creating organizations that embrace vulnerability and meet setbacks with empathy. But my experience with hundreds of leaders and Stanford MBAs over the past eight years has convinced me that "the juice is worth the squeeze," as my Dad is fond of saying, so I remain optimistic that these concepts will ultimately shape business culture for the better, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to participate in that work in my practice and at Stanford.
Thanks to Brené Brown for her research, which has had a significant impact on my approach to executive coaching. Here's Brown's 2007 talk on shame and empathy:
And thanks to TED for providing a complete transcript of Brown's 2010 talk on vulnerability.