According to acclaimed researcher and author Brené Brown, being vulnerable can be a strategic asset to any organization. Although this may sound counterintuitive to some, Brown made the case for how vulnerability cultivates innovation to a rapt audience of directors and corporate-governance professionals gathered at the 2017 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit.
Brown became an Internet sensation after she discussed her academic research on these themes at a TEDxHouston event in 2010. Although her presentation was enthusiastically received by her in-person audience, she was frustrated by negative online comments left on the video. But soon after, she discovered a quote by President Theodore Roosevelt that not only has reframed how she viewed her experience, but also has guided her subsequent work:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Brown then identified the following four qualities that, when operationalized within an organization, will create a culture of courageous leadership:
- Vulnerability. Based on Brown’s research, there is no job where a person is not vulnerable. She noted that vulnerability is not the same as cowardice. Rather, it’s the willingness to expose your new ideas to public scrutiny. Without trying to do something new, and risking the possibility of failing horribly, progress can never happen.
- Courage. It takes courage to compete in business. Luckily, Brown’s research into the behaviors of 80 senior leaders and more than 300 MBA students demonstrates that courage is a skill that can be taught and measured. She recommends four practices to instill a culture of bravery in an organization: (1) encouraging vulnerability, (2) defining the organization’s values and operationalizing those values, (3) inculcating trust between individuals and teams, and (4) empowering people with “rising skills,” or the skills to pick one’s self up and brush one’s self off after failing. Regarding rising skills, Brown pointed out that if your employees cannot recover from and learn from their failures, they will begin to feel that they need to be on the defensive—a mind-set that can hinder creativity and innovation.
- Ethics. One of the most difficult situations a person can encounter in a business setting is standing up to someone who is making unethical choices. According to Brown, ethics should be the grounding framework that drives behavior. When someone acts outside the set of ethics that the organization adopts or outside the law, leaders must be brave enough to call out that person’s missteps. Her point holds particular relevance to directors and executives who are responsible for overseeing business ethics and promoting a culture of ethical performance.
- Trust. Brown asked the audience, “If you can’t see a person’s vulnerability, will you ever be able to trust them?” Vulnerability is a key to building trust, and top-performing teams rate trust in their coworkers as the deciding factor for success.
Brown noted that people who lack trust in one another are likely to avoid confronting their fears and anxieties. Trust makes workers brave enough to develop and share their ideas, and allows them to discuss failures in a respectful manner.
“Can innovation come without exposure?” Brown asked. “Can you have innovation without vulnerability? No. It doesn’t exist.”